President Obama welcomed news of the death of one of the nation's most-wanted terrorists, cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen on Friday, calling it "another significant milestone" in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates. Speaking just months after he ordered the killing of Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan, Obama said Awlaki took the lead in "planning efforts to murder innocent Americans" as head of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Awlaki was a charismatic Yemeni-American who grew up in New Mexico and was considered the most influential English-speaking cleric preaching global jihad today. He was killed by a U.S. drone and jet strike in a joint operation of the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the Associated Press reported.
"The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida’s most active affiliate," Obama said at the retirement ceremony for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. Awlaki's death is a "tribute" to the U.S. intelligence community, and the efforts of Yemen and its intelligence community, he said.
“He has met his demise because the government and people of Yemen have joined the international community in a common effort against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Obama said. Al-Qaida and its allies "will find no safe haven anywhere in the world," he added.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry broke the news of Awlaki's killing in a text message to journalists. A high-ranking Yemeni security official told The New York Times that Awlaki was killed while traveling in northern Yemen, in a region known for a heavy al-Qaida presence.
The ministry later announced that Samir Khan, another American in al-Qaida, was killed along with Awlaki. Khan, a young Pakistani-American in his early 20s, was the editor of Inspire, AQAP’s online English-language magazine. Inspire was known for encouraging terrorist attacks on American soil, even providing intructions on how to make homemade bombs.
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The Obama administration authorized the capture or killing of the U.S.-born cleric last year after concluding that he had taken on an operational role in terrorist attacks. Awlaki was also wanted in absentia in Yemen for trying to kill foreigners.
While he has not officially been charged with any crime in the U.S., “Awlaki and AQAP are also responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Yemen and throughout the region, which have killed scores of Muslims,” a U.S. official told National Journal. “His death takes a committed terrorist, intent on attacking the United States, off the battlefield.”
The U.S. claims Awlaki was linked to attempted terrorist attacks, including assisting would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to down an airliner en route to Detroit in 2009, and sending parcel bombs to the United States in 2010. A senior Defense official said Awlaki worked directly with the planners and perpetrators in both cases. Awlaki was also said to have inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, charged with killing 13 people in a 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas.
While the Pentagon is not discussing any details about the circumstances of Awlaki’s death, a senior Defense official said that Awlaki’s “demise deals a decisive blow to al-Qaida in Yemen.”
“This was a terrorist who wasn't simply a propagandist, but over the years had become an operational figure who was increasingly focused on planning and carrying out attacks against the United States and our allies,” the official said. “A very bad man just had a very bad day. It's a good day, though, for American counterterrorism efforts -- and for counterterrorism cooperation with the government of Yemen. For some time, the Yemenis have played a key role in the hunt for Awlaki."
The U.S. has long urged Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to go after Awlaki -- and recently, has been urging the longtime ruler to step down from power as tens of thousands of Yemenis revolt against him.
U.S. officials have been concerned about al-Qaida making territorial gains in Yemen's tribal areas during the unrest, as Qaida-linked militants have managed to gain control of three towns in the southern Abyan province since May, including its capital, Zinjibar. While Yemen’s army has regained control over parts of Zinjibar, violent clashes continue. The U.S. official told NJ that "the Yemeni government’s counterterrorism program has remained strong despite the turmoil there.”
But Saleh, who is now facing the most intense challenge to his 30-year rule as protests rage, could attempt to use the attack to garner American support for his regime by arguing that he is critical to the war on terrorism. In an interview published in The Washington Post on Friday, Saleh insisted that his government is fighting al-Qaida operatives in the southern province of Abyan in coordination with the Americans and the Saudis. He urged the U.S. not to rush the process of transition, so as not to disturb the counterterrorism alliance.
“I am addressing the American public: ... Are you still keeping your commitment in continuing the operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida?” he asked. “If yes, that will be good. But what we see is that we are pressed by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know where power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaida.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in July that two of his top goals were to remove Awlaki and Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as leader of the terrorist network after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in May. Awlaki has evaded U.S. drone strikes before in Yemen, including one just days after the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
If carried out by the U.S., Awlaki's killing is a significant achievement in the Obama administration’s hunt for high-value targets. Last month, al-Qaida's former No. 2 leader, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, was killed in Pakistan by an apparent CIA drone strike. A Libyan national, al-Rahman had been al-Qaida's operational leader until the raid that killed bin Laden, when he took over the terror network's No. 2 position.