US air strike kills prominent al-Qaida figure in Yemen

ANWAR al-Awlaki, a US-born Islamic militant cleric who became a prominent figure in al-Qaida’s most active branch, using his fluent English and internet savvy to draw recruits to carry out attacks in the United States, was killed yesterday in the mountains of Yemen, US and Yemeni officials said.

The Yemeni government and defence ministry announced al-Awlaki’s death, but gave no details. A senior US official said American intelligence supported the claim he had been killed.

Yemeni security officials and local tribal leaders said he was killed in an airstrike on his convoy that they believed was carried out by the US. They said pilotless drones had been seen over the area in previous days.

Al-Awlaki would be the most prominent al-Qaida figure to be killed since Osama bin Laden’s death in a US raid in Pakistan in May.

In July, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the Yemeni-American was a priority target alongside Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s successor.

Forty-year-old al-Awlaki had been in the US crosshairs since his killing was approved by President Barack Obama in April 2010 — making him the first American placed on the CIA “kill or capture” list. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being, but he wasn’t harmed.

Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, was believed to be key in turning al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen into what US officials have called the most significant and immediate threat to the Untied States. The branch, led by a Yemeni militant named Nasser al-Wahishi, plotted several failed attacks on US soil — the botched Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up an American airliner heading to Detroit and a foiled 2010 attempt to post explosives to Chicago.

An eloquent preacher who spread English-language sermons on the internet calling for “holy war” against the United States, al-Awlaki’s role was to inspire and — it is believed — even directly recruit militants.

US officials believe he went beyond just being an inspiring spiritual leader to become involved in operational planning for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is called.

Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen in 2009.

They say the believe al-Awlaki met with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other al-Qaida leaders, in al-Qaida strongholds in the country in the weeks before the failed bombing.

In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was “inspired” by al-Awlaki after making contact over the internet.

Al-Awlaki also exchanged up to 20 emails with US Major Nidal Malik Hasan, alleged killer of 13 people in the November 5, 2009, rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki’s internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.

Al-Awlaki has said he didn’t tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, but he later praised Hasan as a “hero” on his website for killing American soldiers who would be heading for Afghanistan or Iraq to fight Muslims.

The cleric similarly said Abdulmutallab was his “student” but said he never told him to carry out the airline attack.

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