American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who preached terror as the public face of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed Friday in Yemen, the nation's Defense Ministry said.A Yemeni government official told CNN that an airstrike hit al-Awlaki's motorcade but gave no details about the operation or who conducted it.
The United States regarded al-Awlaki as a terrorist who posed a major threat to American homeland security. Western intelligence officials believe al-Awlaki was a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active al Qaeda affiliates that has been linked to the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit in December 2009 and a cargo plane plot last year.
Al-Awlaki was killed about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Yemeni town of Khashef, east of the capital, Sanaa, said Mohammed Basha, a Yemen Embassy spokesman in Washington. He said the operation was launched at 9:55 a.m.
A senior U.S. administration official confirmed al-Awlaki's death. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to CNN because he was not authorized to release the information and did not provide any other information.
Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, al-Awlaki lived in the United States until the age of seven when his family returned to Yemen. Al-Awlaki returned to the United States in 1991 for college and remained until 2002.
It was during that time that as an imam in California and Virginia, al-Awlaki preached to and interacted with three of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. He publicly condemned the attack afterward.
Al-Awlaki spent 18 months in a Yemeni prison from 2006 to 2007 on kidnapping charges, but was released without going to trial. Al-Awlaki claimed that he was imprisoned and held at the request of the United States.
U.S. officials say al-Awlaki -- often described as articulate with a good understanding of the Western mindset -- helped recruit Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Nigerian man known as the underwear bomber who was charged with trying to blow up a transatlantic flight as it landed in Detroit on December 25, 2009.
The militant cleric is also said to have exchanged e-mails with accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hassan, who is accused of killing a dozen fellow soldiers and a civilian in a rampage at the Texas base.
Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation called al-Awlaki's death significant.
"If you put it into perspective, (Osama) bin Laden's death had global ramifications for the transnational terror movement. Anwar Al-Awlaqi's death will have equal implications for lone-wolf terrorism," Gohel said.
That's because al-Awlaki was articulate and he understood the Western mindset, Gohel said. He knew his way around the internet and was skilled in indoctrinating impressionable youth.
Early this year, a Yemeni court sentenced al-Awlaki in absentia to 10 years in prison for charges of inciting to kill foreigners.
Prosecutors charged al-Awlaki and two others with "forming an armed gang" to target foreign officers and law enforcement in November.
At a U.S. congressional hearing earlier this year, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said, "I actually consider al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, with al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization, as probably the most significant threat to the U.S."
According to IntelCenter, which monitors jihadist propaganda, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is responsible for expanding AQAP's focus on U.S. attacks, remains in charge of the group and further attempts to conduct attacks are expected.
In support of that goal, al-Awlaki was due to release an article in the next issue of AQAP's Inspire magazine on the justifications for attacking civilians in the West. The group announced the upcoming article -- "Targeting Populations of Countries at War with Muslims" -- this week but did not publish it in its latest edition.
Al-Awlaki narrowly survived a U.S. drone assault in May after he switched vehicles with a fellow jihadi, a senior security official told CNN.
Attorneys for al-Awlaki's father, Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki, tried to persuade U.S. District Court Judge John Bates in Washington to issue an injunction last year preventing the government from the targeted killing of al-Awlaki in Yemen.
But Bates dismissed the case in December, ruling that Nasser al-Awlaki did not have standing to sue.
In a November hearing, lawyers for the U.S. government refused to confirm that the cleric was on a secret "kill list" or that such a list even exists.
Last year, YouTube removed a number of video clips featuring al-Awlaki that it found to be inciting violence.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called al-Awlaki's death a "great success" in the fight against al Qaeda.
"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.
"Despite this vital development today, we must remain as vigilant as ever, knowing that there are more Islamic terrorists who will gladly step forward to backfill this dangerous killer."
Al-Awlaki is the latest in a string of losses for al Qaeda.
According to Michael Vickers, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence, eight of the terror network's 20 key leaders have been eliminated this year. He cited the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, the death of al Qaeda second-in-command Atiya Abdul Rahman in August, and the capture of Younis Mauritani, a senior planner of operations, earlier this month.
Only al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains active among those who were the top nine terrorists at the time of the 9/11 attacks against the United States in 2001.
But al Qaeda is far from dead, Vickers noted, and still poses a dangerous threat to the United States.
"It maintains a worldwide strength numbering in the low thousands, it has broadened its reach through affiliate organizations" in general, but in particular he mentioned al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which he said has been able to increase its operating space in Yemen.
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