Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni cleric identified by the United States as one of the most significant threats to its homeland security, was killed yesterday in a targeted air strike in Yemen.
The killing was hailed by President Barack Obama and other US officials as another crippling blow for al-Qa'ida, eliminating a key figure in the group's most active and dangerous affiliate.
At a ceremony marking the departure of Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr Obama declared his death as "the latest milestone in our broader efforts to defeat al-Qa'ida".
It had removed a man 2whose hateful ideology was rejected by the vast majority of Muslims of every faith", and was "further proof that the group and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world".
Awlaki was an inspirational figure in al-Qa'ida in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP, spreading his extremist ideology to disaffected Muslims all over the world, but particularly in the West where his fluency in English gained him many followers. His particular skill was in giving lone attackers the confidence to strike, and he is linked to several attacks on American soil, including the shooting of soldiers at a military base in Fort Hood by an army psychiatrist, and a failed attempt by the "underpants" bomber to down a US airliner above Detroit nearly two years ago.
A US citizen, Awlaki was killed early yesterday morning by an American drone strike on his convoy some 90 miles from the capital Sanaa in the rugged Marib province that has provided a haven for al-Qa'ida militants. The cleric, who according to witnesses had stopped in the desert to eat breakfast moments before the attack, had been under observation for three weeks, US officials said.
Also killed in the strike was Sameer Khan, a Pakistani American who produced Inspire, the online publication that has been a source of inspiration for amateur plotters, urging its followers to attack US targets.
Awlaki has long been in Washington's sights. Last year, Mr Obama added him to the CIA's "kill or capture" list, the first time that the White House had sanctioned the extrajudicial killing of a US citizen. The US has identified AQAP with "Awlaki as a leader within the organisation as probably the most significant threat to the US homeland".
One Pentagon official said yesterday: "This was ... an operational figure who was increasingly focused on planning and carrying out attacks against the United States and our allies. A very bad man just had a very bad day."
It is, however, a very good day for President Obama, struggling to impose his authority and at a low point in the polls, barely a year before he faces re-election. After the successful operation against Osama bin Laden in May, it will further undercut traditional Republican claims that Democrats are weak on national security.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a willing recipient of US funding and military training to fight terrorism on Yemeni soil, will also hope to claim credit from the operation, to stem international calls for his resignation.
It was only a week ago that Mr Saleh returned to Yemen after a failed attempt on his life three months ago forced him to flee to Saudi Arabia. He has been facing pro-democracy protests since the beginning of this year, an uprising that has escalated into deadly clashes between rival clans and military commanders.
But analysts said Washington should be doing much more than focusing on counterterrorism, and instead tackle the issues such as a battered economy that have allowed al-Qa'ida to prosper in Yemen. "We [the West] are focused on the symptoms of the disease, not the causes of the disease," said Christopher Boucek, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In Yemen, meanwhile, Mr Awlaki's removal is likely to have little impact, for he is barely known. Experts suggest his operational importance has been exaggerated by the West, noting that he is not a part of AQAP's senior leadership. Nevertheless, his removal will hurt the group's efforts to reach a broader audience.
Major Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas nearly two years ago, had sought advice from the cleric, asking whether it was justified to kill American soldiers on US soil, investigations later showed.
Crimes of a mastermind
The four suicide bombers who made the co-ordinated attack on London's transport system on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people, had attended lectures given by Awlaki in Britain.
In 2006, the Muslim cleric served up to 18 months in a Yemeni jail, reportedly on charges which implicated him in a foiled plot to kidnap a US military attaché. He stepped up his Facebook campaign on leaving jail, and released a pamphlet called "44 Ways to Support Jihad".
Awlaki is believed to have been involved in the mail bombs addressed to synagogues in Chicago which were intercepted in Dubai and the UK in October 2010.
Violence against foreigners
In November last year, Yemeni authorities tried Awlaki in absentia for inciting violence against foreigners. He was believed to be connected with the killing of a French security guard at an oil complex in October.
The Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to plotting an attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square in May 2010 told prosecutors that he had been "inspired" by Awlaki. He said they had been corresponding online.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting that left 13 people dead at Fort Hood military base in Texas in November 2009, it emerged that Awlaki had exchanged around 20 emails with the suspected killer, psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan. The cleric praised Maj Hasan after the incident and called him a "hero".
The cleric is believed to have tutored Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is awaiting trial in the US for allegedly attempting to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear on a flight to Detroit in December 2009.Reuse content