By Matt Spetalnick and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON | Fri Sep 30, 2011
(Reuters) - U.S. officials confirmed that Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, was killed in a CIA drone strike on Friday and hailed it as a success for Washington and its partners in the fight against Islamic militancy.
"I can confirm he's dead," an Obama administration official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two other U.S. officials said Awlaki, a key English-speaking propagandist for al Qaeda's Yemen branch, was killed in a drone attack in a remote Yemeni town, part of a campaign of airstrikes waged by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The U.S. government branded Awlaki a "global terrorist" last year. He had been targeted more than once by U.S. forces authorized to kill him because of what Washington believed was the role he played in radicalizing English-speaking Muslims and because of his alleged role in plots to attack U.S. targets.
U.S. intelligence had identified him as "chief of external operations" for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the most dangerous of the militant network's far-flung branches.
"He planned and directed attacks against the United States," one U.S. official said. "In addition, Awlaki publicly urged attacks against U.S. persons and interests worldwide and called for violence against Arab governments he judged to be working against al Qaeda."
The official called Awlaki's killing the latest example of "recent global CT (counterterrorism) success by the U.S. and its partners." A Yemeni official said Awlaki, 40, who was born in New Mexico and was of Yemeni descent, was killed in an air strike.
Awlaki's death adds to a list of recent blows to al Qaeda, including the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan in May.
It was unclear whether Awlaki's killing would ease strains between U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is clinging to power despite months of popular protests, factional violence and international pressure.
The White House has repeatedly called on Saleh to relinquish power and start a democratic transition.
STEPPED-UP DRONE STRIKES
The United States has stepped up drone strikes in Yemen to try and keep al Qaeda off balance and prevent it from capitalizing on the strife and chaos gripping the nation.
Awlaki was the first U.S. citizen who the White House authorized the CIA or other U.S. agencies to kill because of his alleged operational role in militant attacks directed against the United States.
This authorization was issued after intelligence was collected linking him to a botched attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December 2009. He was also accused of helping to oversee a failed plot in October 2010 to blow up U.S. cargo aircraft, the Obama administration official said.
The U.S. government also found that he had sought to use poisons including cyanide and ricin in attacks on Westerners and had contacts with a military psychiatrist accused of carrying out a deadly shooting rampage that killed 13 people in 2009 at the Fort Hood army base in Texas.
U.S. intelligence officials have said al Qaeda, the militant network that carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, has been severely debilitated by the loss of some of its top leaders.
In Washington, U.S. Representative Peter King, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, called the killing of Awlaki "a great success in our fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
"For the past several years, al-Awlaki has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been. The killing of al-Awlaki is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community," King, a Republican, said.
But he said the United States must remain vigilant "knowing that there are more Islamic terrorists who will gladly step forward to backfill this dangerous killer."