By HAKIM ALMASMARI in San'a and MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi
September 30, 2011
SAN'A, Yemen—Al Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the most wanted terrorists on a U.S. target list, has been killed in Yemen, according to Yemeni and U.S. officials, marking another significant blow to the global terrorist group after the assassination of Osama bin Laden earlier this year.
Mr. Awlaki, who has been on the run and hiding in Yemen's remote tribal highlands for years, was killed at approximately 9:55 a.m. local time outside a village in the northeastern province of Jawf, according to an official familiar with the situation. The area is near a historic smuggling route along a mountain range stretching the length of the country and located some 140 kilometers (87 miles) from the capital San'a.
It is not yet clear what U.S. military assets were involved in Friday's attack, or the details of the attack that killed Mr. Awlaki. Both U.S. military and intelligence officials work with Yemeni counterparts to track and find al Qaeda elements in the country.
A senior Yemeni official said that U.S. officials were "directly" involved with tracking the American-born cleric as he moved around Yemen. They learned that he had moved to Jawf earlier this month, the official said.
The U.S. narrowly missed Mr. Awlaki in a failed assassination attempt back in May. U.S. drones fired on a vehicle in the southern Yemen province of Shebwa that the cleric had been driving in earlier the same day. Shebwa is hundreds of kilometers from the site where Mr. Awlaki was located and killed on Friday.
"We have been trying to get him for months, but every time he somehow finds a way to escape death," the Yemeni official said.
Mr. Awlaki has long been among the top of the U.S. target list in Yemen, which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula uses as its base. The American-born cleric has emerged as a leading charismatic recruiter for AQAP, a group the U.S. considers the world's most dangerous terror organization and the place that represents the gravest threat to the American homeland.
U.S. officials have linked Mr. Awlaki to at least three major terrorist incidents: the Fort Hood shootings in which 13 people were killed, the Christmas 2009 plot to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane and a separate plan to blow up a U.S.-bound cargo plane. Mr. Awlaki's U.S. roots and fluent English made him a special concern of U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Western officials have worried that the political upheaval in Yemen would derail their counterterrorism efforts in the remote, impoverished country. The country has descended into chaotic factional fighting as several key groups have turned on President Ali Abdullah Saleh and demanded the end of his 33-year rule.
Throughout the spring and summer, fighting has raged in southern provinces and the capital, and key areas next to Yemen's largest port and the country's oil-producing areas have increasingly come under the sway of militant Islamist groups, including fighters connected to AQAP.
At the same time, counterterrorism teams have stepped up their hunt for key figures and have killed several in the past few months.
U.S. and Saudi officials traditionally have worked closely with forces commanded by President Saleh's son and nephews in their counterterrorism work. Those elite Yemeni forces, however, have in many cases been redeployed from counterterrorism duties to help protect the president and his family from pro-democracy demonstrators in and around San'a.
Some antiregime activists in Yemen believe that a lack of international effort to remove the leader from power is connected to the U.S. drive to rid the country of its al Qaeda threat.
Mr. Awlaki came to prominence in 2009 due to his role as an Internet-based spiritual guide aiding the radicalization of a new generation of Islamist extremists.
Although he isn't the head of AQAP, U.S. officials say Mr. Awlaki has assumed an operational leadership role in the terror group. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, corresponded with Mr. Awlaki before his attack.
The U.S. added Mr. Awlaki to the CIA's target list after AQAP's failed attempt a month later to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger airliner.
Part of Mr. Awlaki's appeal, say U.S. officials and terrorism experts, is his ability to act as a bridge between the mainly Arab leaders of al Qaeda and willing potential jihadists in the West.
Born in New Mexico, he preached at a mosque in Northern Virginia until 2002, when he left the U.S. to spend time building a following in the U.K., before returning to Yemen in 2004.
Yemen authorities arrested him at the behest of the U.S., but then released him in December 2007 saying they didn't have enough evidence to hold him.
—Julian Barnes in Washington contributed to this article.