SANAA, Yemen — The killing of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and another American militant propagandist in a U.S. airstrike Friday wipes out the decisive factor that made al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen the most dangerous threat to the United States: its reach into the West.
Issuing English-language sermons on jihad on the Internet from his hideouts in Yemen’s mountains, al-Awlaki drew Muslim recruits like the young Nigerian who tried to bring down a U.S. jet on Christmas and the Pakistani-American behind the botched car bombing in New York City’s Times Square.
Friday’s drone attack was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so. Al-Awlaki was placed on the CIA “kill or capture” list by the Obama administration in April 2010 — the first American to be so targeted.
The other American killed in the strike, Samir Khan, published a slick English-language Web magazine, “Inspire,” that spouted al-Qaida’s ideology of attacks on Westerners and even gave how-to manuals on how to carry one out — like an article titled, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Their voices elevated the several hundred al-Qaida fighters hiding out in Yemen into a greater threat than similar affiliates of the terror network in North Africa, Somalia or east Asia.
President Barack Obama heralded the strike as a “major blow to al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate,” saying the 40-year-old al-Awlaki was the group’s “leader of external operations.”
“In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama told reporters in Washington, saying al-Awlaki plotted the Christmas 2009 airplane bombing attempt and a foiled attempt in 2010 to mail explosives to the United States.
U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said, “This is yet another significant and striking blow against a damaged but still dangerous terror network.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the Ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, “Al-Awlaki inspired and encouraged numerous terrorist plots against our country, using his knowledge of America as a means to harm us. The Fort Hood attack, the attempted bombing in New York’s Times Square, the failed attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and the thwarted plot to detonate explosives concealed in printer toner cartridges on airplanes all bore his fingerprints. He fueled hate against America, and we are safer because al-Awlaki is dead. We must nevertheless continue our efforts to combat and discredit the violent Islamist ideology he espoused and disseminated.”
Al-Awlaki’s death was the biggest success in the Obama administration’s intensified campaign to take out al-Qaida’s leadership since the May killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The pursuit of al-Awlaki and Friday’s strike were directed by the same U.S. special unit that directed the Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden’s hideout.
After three weeks of tracking the targets, U.S. armed drones and fighter jets shadowed al-Awlaki’s convoy, before drones launched the lethal strike early Friday, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
Al-Awlaki and his comrades were moving through a desert region east of Yemen’s capital near the village of Khasaf between mountain strongholds in the provinces of Jawf and Marib when the drone struck, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.
A tribal chief in the area told The Associated Press that the brother of one of those killed witnessed the strike. The brother, who had sheltered the group in his home nearby, said the group had stopped for breakfast in the desert and were sitting on the ground eating when they saw the drone approaching. They rushed to their truck to drive off when the missiles hit, incinerating the vehicle, according to the tribal chief.
U.S. officials said two other militants were killed in the strike. But the tribal chief, who helped bury the bodies in a Jawf cemetery, said seven people were killed, including al-Awlaki, Khan, two midlevel Yemeni al-Qaida members, two Saudis and another Yemeni. The differing numbers could not immediately be reconciled.
Al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, had been in the U.S. cross-hairs since his killing was approved by Obama last year. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being, but he wasn’t harmed.
In July, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said al-Awlaki was a priority target alongside Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s successor as the terror network’s leader.
Bruce Riedel, a Brookings senior fellow and former CIA officer, cautioned that while al-Awlaki was the “foremost propagandist,” for al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, his death “doesn’t really significantly change its fortunes.”
Al-Qaida’s branch “is intact and arguably growing faster than ever before because of the chaos in Yemen,” he said.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terror branch in Yemen is called, has been operating in Yemen for years, led by a Yemeni militant and former bin Laden aide named Nasser al-Wahishi. Its main goal has been the toppling of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and targeting the monarchy in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and its several hundreds militants have found refuge among tribes in Yemen’s mountainous regions, where the Sanaa government has little control.
Amid the past seven months of political turmoil in Yemen, al-Qaida and other Islamic militants have gained even more of a foothold, seizing control of at least three towns and cities in the south and battling with the army.
Al-Wahishi placed major importance on propaganda efforts.
In the latest issue of Inspire, put out earlier this month, Khan — a U.S. citizen of Pakistani heritage — recounted meeting the Yemeni al-Qaida leader. “‘Remember,’ he said, as other mujahedeen were busy working on their computers in the background. ‘The media work is half of the jihad’,” Khan wrote.
Al-Awlaki gave the group its international voice.
He was young, fluent in English, well-acquainted with Western culture and with the discontent of young Muslims there. His numerous video sermons, circulated on YouTube and other sites, offered a measured political argument — interspersed with religious lessons — that the United States must be fought for waging wars against Muslims.
Downloads of his sermons were found in the laptops and computers of several groups arrested for plotting attacks in the United States and Britain.
Al-Awlaki exchanged up to 20 emails with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of opening fire at the U.S. military base at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people, in a 2009 rampage. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki’s Internet sermons.
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.
In New York, the Pakistani-American 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.
But U.S. officials say al-Awlaki moved beyond being just a mouthpiece into a direct operational role in organizing such attacks as he hid alongside al-Qaida militants in the rugged mountains of Yemen.
Most notably, they believe he was involved in recruiting and preparing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a U.S. airliner heading to Detroit on Christmas 2009, failing only because he botched the detonation of explosives sewn into his underpants.
Yemeni officials say they believe al-Awlaki and other al-Qaida leaders met with Abdulmutallab in a Yemen hideout in the weeks before the failed bombing. Al-Awlaki has said Abdulmutallab was his “student” but said he never told him to carry out the airline attack.
Al-Awlaki began as a mosque preacher as he conducted his university studies in the United States, and he was not seen by his congregations as radical. While preaching in San Diego, he came to know two of the men who would eventually become suicide-hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The FBI questioned al-Awlaki at the time but found no cause to detain him.
In 2004, al-Awlaki returned to Yemen, and in the years that followed, his English-language Internet sermons increasingly turned to denunciations of the United States and calls for jihad, or holy war. Since the Fort Hood attack, he has been on the run alongside al-Qaida militants.
U.S. terrorism expert Evan Kohlman said al-Awlaki’s death doesn’t affect al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s military capabilities. “The one area it makes a difference is, it limits the ability of AQAP to put out more English-language propaganda,” at least in the short term.
“Al-Awlaki’s greatest importance really is a recruiter for homegrown terrorism,” he said. “There is no doubt he has provided assistance to recruiting people on behalf of AQAP.”
But Kohlman noted that al-Awlaki’s sermons and calls for jihad remain on the Web and “in some ways you could say they may be even more effective now because he has been martyred for his cause. … That is a powerful lesson.”
AP correspondents Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Lolita Baldor and AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Lee Keath and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.