Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Islamic militant cleric who became a prominent figure in al-Qaida’s most active branch, has been killed in the mountains of Yemen.
The Yemeni government and defense ministry announced al-Awlaki’s death but gave no details. A senior US official said American intelligence supports the claim that he has been killed.
Yemeni security officials and local tribal leaders said he was killed in an air strike on his convoy that they believed was carried out by the Americans. 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 as the terror network’s leader.
The 40-year-old al-Awlaki had been a US target 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, air strikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being present but he was not 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 American 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 send explosives to Chicago.
Known as 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 to carry out attacks.
He was not believed to be a key operational leader, but acted as a spokesman. His English skills gave him reach among second and third generation Muslims who may not speak Arabic.
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 they 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.
In a statement, the Yemeni government said al-Awlaki was “targeted and killed” five miles from the town of Khashef in the province of al-Jawf. The town is located 87 miles east of the capital Sanaa.
The statement says the operation was launched on Friday at around 9.55am.
Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, has become a haven for hundreds of al-Qaida militants. The United States has been deeply concerned that militants will take advantage of the country’s political turmoil to strengthen their positions. In recent months, militants have seized control of several cities in Yemen’s south.
A previous attack against al-Awlaki on May 5, shortly after the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden, was carried out by a combination of US drones and jets.
The operation was run by the US military’s elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command – the same unit that got bin Laden. The unit has worked closely with Yemeni counterterrorism forces for years, in the fight against al-Qaida.