Cleric who inherited the mantle of Washington's most-wanted


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From Hitler to Saddam Hussein, Americans have invariably personalised foreign threats to their country.

And since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, no individual has embodied the threat of radical Islamic terrorism like Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric born and largely educated in the US who rose to become a leading figure in al-Qa'ida's affiliate in Yemen – now regarded as the group's most dangerous emanation.

A dual citizen of Yemen and the US, Awlaki was born in 1971 in the unlikely setting of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where his father (who would later become a minister in the Yemeni government) was studying for a masters degree in agricultural economics. Over the decades that followed, the son metamorphosed from student to teacher of orthodox Islam to radical preacher and finally into an inspirer and alleged organiser of some of the most serious terrorist incidents in the US in the years after 9/11.

These included the Fort Hood rampage of November 2009 – in which Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army major who had corresponded by email with Awlaki over the use of violence, killed 13 people and wounded dozens more in the worst ever shooting at a US Army base – and the attempted "Christmas Day bombing" less than two months later of a commercial airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit.

The would-be bomber, the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was overpowered by passengers as he sought to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear. He later told investigators he had been recruited and trained by Awlaki.

Six months later, a Pakistani-American man who plotted to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square, confessed that he had been "inspired" by the Yemeni cleric after making contact over the internet. Awlaki is also suspected of helping organise the unsuccessful despatch of mail bombs to synagogues in the Chicago area in October last year.

By then he had long become one of America's most wanted, ranking on the terrorist hit list behind only bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. For the last 18 months of his life, Awlaki enjoyed the distinction of being the first, and thus far only, American citizen whose targeted killing by the CIA was specifically ordered by the President of the United States.

In American eyes, the danger posed by Awlaki stemmed not only from the operations in which he was involved, but even more from his background. Bin Laden, in his latter years at least, was an increasingly isolated figure, far removed from the West. Not so Anwar al-Awlaki.

He spoke the enemy's language like a native, and understood its ways. Awlaki spent his first seven years in the US before returning to Yemen with his family. In 1991 he returned to attend Colorado State University on a scholarship from the Sanaa government before spending time in San Diego and then the Washington DC area.

In the US he became steadily more involved in Islam, as a teacher and lecturer. As a second-year student at CSU, he made a trip to mujahideen-controlled Afghanistan in 1993, and working with Islamic charities that the FBI would later claim were front organisations channelling money to radical groups.

In 2000 and 2001, Awlaki even crossed paths with three of the future September 11 hijackers who, according to the 9/11 Commission report, "respected him as a religious figure". Whether or not he had specific advance knowledge of the 2001 attacks, it is more than likely, officials have said, that Awlaki was part of a support network for their perpetrators.

With the FBI closing in, he left the US for the last time, first for Britain and then for Yemen, where he returned to settle in 2004. But if anything, he was perceived as an even greater danger. After the London bombings of July 2005, US counter-terrorism efforts focused ever more on a similar "home-grown" threat in their own country, that Awlaki was ideally placed to fan.

He was a compelling speaker – but one who to many of his US followers did not immediately come across as an advocate of violent jihad. A well-mannered "all-American boy" was how many remembered him. No less important, Awlaki knew how to use the internet to establish ties with disaffected Muslims in the English-speaking world, and to promulgate his views.

Those views became increasingly fiery once he was back in Yemen – especially after a 16-month spell in prison for alleged involvement in various kidnapping plots. Awlaki himself was convinced the US had leant on the Yemeni authorities to extend his detention without legal basis, and at some point along the way, according to US investigators, the Islamic agitator turned into an organiser of terrorism.

He spent most of his last two years in hiding in remote tribal areas of Yemen, largely beyond the reach of the central government but in touch with his followers. In March 2010, Awlaki made a video appeal to America's Muslims, asking how they could live "in peaceful coexistence with a nation ... responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?" The US and Yemeni governments responded with a series of attempts to kill him. Yesterday, after several near-misses, they succeeded.