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Drone attack kills US-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda

Anwar al-Awlaki (left), a leading Al Qaeda figure, was shown this 2008 photo taken in Yemen, where he died in a US attack yesterday. At right, women urged Yemen’s leader to step down. Anwar al-Awlaki (left), a leading Al Qaeda figure, was shown this 2008 photo taken in Yemen, where he died in a US attack yesterday. At right, women urged Yemen’s leader to step down. (Muhammad Ud-Deen/ Associated Press/Reuters)
By Alan Cowell, Laura Kasinof, and Mark Mazzetti
New York Times / October 1, 2011

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SANA, Yemen - Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical US-born cleric who was a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and was considered its most dangerous English-speaking propagandist and plotter, was killed in a US drone strike on his vehicle yesterday, officials in Washington and Yemen said.

They said the strike also killed a radical US colleague who was an editor of Al Qaeda’s online jihadist magazine.

Many details of the strike were unclear, but one US official said that Awlaki, whom the United States had been hunting in Yemen for more than two years, had been identified as the target in advance and was killed with a Hellfire missile fired from a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. The official said it was the first CIA strike in Yemen since 2002. Yemen’s Defense Ministry confirmed Awlaki’s death.

The strike appeared to be the first time in the US-led war on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that an American had been deliberately killed by US forces, a step that has raised contentious constitutional issues in the United States. It was also the second high-profile killing of an Al Qaeda leader in the past five months under the Obama administration, which ordered the US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.

Awlaki was an important member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded by some antiterrorism experts as the most dangerous branch in the Al Qaeda network. He was considered the inspirational or operational force behind a number of major plots to kill Americans in the United States in recent years, most notably the deadly assault at a US Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, and attempts to bomb Times Square and a Detroit-bound jetliner.

“The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate,’’ President Obama said. He said the cleric had taken “the lead role in planning and directing the efforts to murder innocent Americans.’’

Obama also called Awlaki “the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’’ - the first time the United States has used that description of him.

Yemen’s official news agency, Saba, reported that the attack also killed Samir Khan, a US citizen of Pakistani origin who was an editor of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language Internet magazine. A US official said the government believed Khan had been killed as well. It was not clear whether Khan, who proclaimed in the magazine last year that he was “proud to be a traitor to America,’’ was also a deliberate target of the strike.

A Yemeni Defense Ministry statement said several of Awlaki’s bodyguards were also killed.

Neither the Americans nor the Yemenis explained precisely how they knew that Awlaki, 40, had been confirmed dead.

The strike came in the midst of a deepening political crisis in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been resisting repeated calls to relinquish power - including from the United States. Saleh has argued that he is critical to the intensifying US efforts to battle Al Qaeda here.

A high-ranking Yemeni security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Awlaki was killed while traveling between Marib and Al Jawf provinces in northern Yemen - areas known for having an Al Qaeda presence and little central government control.

A tribal sheik from Al Jawf, Abdullah al-Jumaili, said that he had seen the site of the attack on Awlaki’s vehicle, in eastern Al Jawf, and that the vehicle had been almost totally destroyed. But he said he had spoken to other tribesmen in the area and was “100 percent sure’’ Awlaki had been killed.

While US leaders welcomed news of his death, it could also play into the tangled politics of Yemen and Saleh’s efforts to remain in power.

In early September, the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said recent cooperation with Yemen was better than it had ever been despite the prolonged absence of Saleh, who returned recently after four months in Saudi Arabia recovering from wounds he suffered in an attack on his palace.

A senior US military official in Washington said Awlaki’s death would send an important message to the surviving leaders and foot soldiers in Al Qaeda.

“It’s critically important,’’ the senior official said. “It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them. Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. You take out someone like this, it sends a message. Bottom line, they’ve taken a severe impact.’’

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