Friday, September 30, 2011

U.S. hails killing of Awlaki in drone strike

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.


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."

Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks

September 29

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sat down Thursday for a brief interview with The Washington Post and Time Magazine in his presidential compound in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. This is the first interview he has given since he sustained severe injuries in an attack inside his compound in early June and was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. He returned to Yemen last Friday.

Q: We would like to inquire about your health. Do you have any indications of who might have been behind the terrorist attack that nearly killed you on June 2?

SALEH: Thank you for asking about my health. About the incident, there has been an exchange of information between us and the United States. And they promised us they would analyze the subject by the end of September. So we are still waiting for the analysis from Washington.

Q: You have authorized your deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to sign the GCC initiative [a plan for a transfer of power crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors]. Why don’t you do it yourself, now that you are here? And if you could explain to me what is holding up the agreement, and how close is the government to signing it?

SALEH: First of all, the vice president was delegated according to a Republican declaration [a declaration by the president]. And there isn’t any reason for it not to go through, whether I am in the country or out of it. There is nothing that would stop this declaration from going through.

Q: How close is the vice president to signing the agreement?

SALEH: The vice president is waiting for the other side. We are ready to sign the GCC initiative as it is. However, the JMP [the opposition coalition Joint Meetings Party] say that they want from this initiative one point: that the president or the vice president signs and that within 30 days [the president] leaves power. And then the 60 days that the GCC has mentioned — they [the JMP] say that is not enough for elections. What is important to [the JMP] is to remove the president from power, and the country would then go through chaos.

We are ready and willing to sign at any time. But we need to sign the GCC initiative as a whole, and we need timelines for the mechanism of executing it. ... We are not holding onto power, we are willing to leave power as stated in the agreement, within the days and hours that will be agreed upon.

Q: Yet many say you are stalling. Three times you have offered to sign, only to back down at the last minute. Many in the international community think that you are buying time in order to consolidate power. What makes your commitment this time different?

SALEH: This is a misunderstanding. We are willing within the next hours and next days to sign it, if the JMP comes closer [to reaching an agreement]. We don’t want to prolong it. And we don’t want this crisis to continue. We want this country to get out of this crisis.

Q: And you are still committed to not running again when there are elections?

SALEH (laughing): As for me, I will retire — since the opposition has helped bring the president closer to retirement through the criminal act that happened at the presidential mosque.

Q: In recent days there has been heavy public criticism of you by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar [a key military commander and longtime Saleh ally who broke with him on March 21], as well as the Ahmar clan [a powerful tribal family]. What is your response to this public criticism, and given the violence and mistrust that is unfolding, is it possible for all of you to remain in Yemen and work together?

SALEH: What kind of criticism?

Q: General Ali Mohsen put out a statement just the other day saying that you were driving the country to civil war.

SALEH: They make such statements every day. They are the ones who attack the military bases, the civilians and the protesters — the protesters who are moving around the city with the protection of Ali Mohsen and the Ahmars, using armed people. And they assassinate protesters from behind so they can blame the state.

And I believe that the American intelligence is following this up and keeping a close eye on it and that they know exactly what is going on.

Q: So can you live together with [Mohsen and the Ahmars] in the future?

SALEH: To be able to live with the other political powers, yes, there is no problem. But whoever was involved in the presidential attack and the incident two weeks ago that happened in Zubeiri Street ... that resulted in casualties of both soldiers and civilians — regardless of who they are or what their positions are, we have to bring them before the law.

Q: Your crackdown on protesters has been violent. You have gotten international condemnation for using guns and heavy weapons against peaceful protesters. Why have you resorted to such violent crackdown measures?

SALEH: This kind of action is not possible in Yemen. The constitution has given the right to Yemenis to gather and protest and to express their views through the media. But these actions ... these actions were performed by a group of people that wanted the blame to end up falling on the state. They claimed that they are protecting [the protesters] and ended up shooting them and using these actions. There is a sort of trend, a media trend, by some of the media to call for the toppling of regimes and their replacement by nationalists, socialists and various other movements.

And now they are moving toward Islamists, and a big evidence for that is they are making propaganda about the regime in Sanaa. They are saying that the government is the one that is oppressing the protesters, whereas [the protesters] are the ones who are oppressing the state itself by their actions. We are fighting the al-Qaeda organization in [the southern region of] Abyan in coordination with the Americans and Saudis. At the same time, American intelligence has knowledge that [al-Qaeda] is in contact with both the Muslim Brotherhood [the opposition Islah party in the JMP] and the military officers who are outlaws. And they [the Muslim Brotherhood and officers] told the vice president, “Give us Abyan, and we will stop the war in Abyan and the al-Qaeda network there.”

Q: Do you think General Ali Mohsen and the Ahmars should be prosecuted, and will you transfer power as long as they remain in their own influential positions?

SALEH: This depends on results of investigation and the analysis that are coming from Washington.

Q: And will you transfer power if they are still in positions of influence?

SALEH: No. The GCC initiative is clear. It says to remove all the elements causing tensions. Because if we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup. If we transfer power, and they are in their positions, and they are still decisionmakers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war.

I want to ask you about Yemen and U.S. relations, which is important: On the day you returned to Yemen ...

SALEH: On the day you returned to Yemen ...

The Yemeni-American relationship is good. In fact, it has not been affected during the past 33 years. And we have relationships with many political powers in Washington, whether they are from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. There have been some differences during the last Gulf War because of the Yemeni stance, but then the Americans realized that we were right and that we were not just defending the Iraqi regime.

But the Americans ...

And these were accusations by analysts, diplomats and so on that turned out not to be true.

But the U.S. has asked you to step down ...

I am addressing the American public. I want to ask a question: Are you still keeping your commitment in continuing the operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda? If Washington is still with the international community in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who have disturbed the world peace. If yes, that will be good. But what we see is that we are pressurized by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know to where the power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Top Al Qaeda Figure Killed


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.