REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- The Yemen military has announced that an airstrike has killed Anwar Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born cleric and prominent voice in an Al Qaeda affiliate that spread Islamic extremism across the Arabian Peninsula and was behind failed attempts to blow up American airplanes.
Details of the attack on Awlaki were sparse, but news of his death came as Washington was providing intelligence and predator drones to the Yemeni army to defeat Al Qaeda operatives in the country’s rugged mountains. Yemen media reported that Awlaki was targeted in an airstrike in the Marib region of northern Yemen.
A U.S. official in Washington with access to intelligence said the Obama administration has confirmed that Awlaki is dead. But the official would not say what role, if any, U.S. drones or missiles may have played in an attack that will likely set back Islamic militant networks, which have exploited Yemen’s political chaos by taking over villages and towns.
“The terrorist Anwar Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions,” read a text message released to journalists by the Defense Ministry.
The death would be the latest in a series of military operations worldwide that have targeted Al Qaeda leaders, including the killing of Osma bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. forces in May. The pressure on the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has intensified as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have sought to contain several hundred militants, most from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, from launching cross-border attacks.
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spoke fluent English, became an Internet phenomenon by producing video and audio recordings to lure Westerners into extremist ideologies. Awlaki was implicated in attempts to blow up U.S. airliners, including the botched plot by a Nigerian man to detonate explosives in his underwear in 2009. That same year the cleric was blamed for inspiring U.S. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to allegedly kill 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas.
The White House had placed Awlaki on the CIA’s assassination list. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a congressional hearing this year: "I actually consider Al Qaeda in the Arab peninsula with Awlaki as a leader within that organization as probably the most significant threat to the U.S."
Washington and Western countries have grown fearful that Yemen, which is engulfed in massive anti-government protests and tribal fighting, would allow Al Qaeda to strengthen its hold at the intersection of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Awlaki’s death would likely improve Yemen President Ali Abdullah’s standing as an American ally and help him gain international support to hang onto power as his country teeters close to civil war.
Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest nation and Saleh, who survived an assassination attempt in June, has been unable to calm protests against him. His forces in recent weeks have been stretched by putting down a popular rebellion and battling Al Qaeda militants who have stormed police stations and government buildings.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Anwar Awlaki in Yemen in October 2008. Credit: Muhammad ud-Deen / AP