American military and undercover agents abroad have been given explicit authorisation by the Obama administration to kill a US-born Muslim cleric suspected of plotting terror attacks against the United States from his base in Yemen, where he is thought to be hiding, officials said yesterday.
The extraordinary order, approved by the National Security Council operating out of the White House, concerns Anwar al-Awlaki, a preacher who was born in New Mexico. He became popular with some conservative Muslim groups both in the US and in Britain before vanishing into Yemen.
There does not appear to be a precedent for the US to target one of its own citizens for possible assassination, at least not since the terror attacks of September 2001. The decision to target 38-year-old Awlaki – he is to be captured or killed – was reported by several US media outlets and was confirmed anonymously by some senior officials yesterday. "We would be remiss if we didn't find ways to pursue someone who is a serious threat to this country and has plotted against Americans," one official told CNN when asked about Awlaki.
Awlaki, whose parents are from Yemen, rose to prominence as a speaker in San Diego, California, in the late 1990s before moving in 2000 to become a preacher at a mosque on the outskirts of Washington DC. He fled the US in 2002, and spent some of the next two years building a following in Britain.
US terror investigators have become convinced that since going into hiding in Yemen, Awlaki has become highly active as the effective chief of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the main terror network based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The focus on Awlaki intensified after links were found between him and Major Nidal Hassan, who was charged with the killing of 13 people at the Fort Hood army base in Texas last year, and with the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
That the Obama administration might go so far as to green-light the assassination of an American to combat terror was first signalled by the Director of Intelligence, Dennis Blair in February. "We take direct actions against terrorists," he said at a congressional hearing. "If we think direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that." He did not name Awlaki at the time, however.
Former president Gerald Ford signed the law that made political assassinations illegal in the US. However, an exemption can be made if the target is considered a military enemy of the American people. "The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual – through his own actions – has become one," one US official told the New York Times. "Awlaki knows what he's done, and he knows he won't be met with handshakes and flowers. None of this should surprise anyone."
Awlaki is thought to have first met Abdulmutallab in London when the Nigerian was studying there. From information given by Abdulmutallab after his arrest on Christmas Day in Detroit, it seems that Awlaki was closely involved in his training in Yemen precisely for the attack on the Delta airliner.
Since the Fort Hood shooting, officials have found emails between the accused, Hassan, and Awlaki. In one, Hassan allegedly writes: "I can't wait to join you in the afterlife". It also appears that Hassan, who worked at a Washington hospital before transferring last year to Texas, attended the mosque in Virginia where Awlaki was briefly a preacher. The FBI first began tracking Awlaki in the mid-1990s in San Diego, where he was arrested several times for alleged solicitation of prostitutes. The scrutiny multiplied when it was found that two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended sermons given by Awlaki.
He is thought to be in hiding in a mountainous region, but he has continued to get his message out via the internet. Fluent in English, Awlaki, who even has a Facebook page, is unusual among radical clerics in being able to nurture his following among conservative young Muslims in the US and Britain.
Anwar al-Awlaki: In his own words
The following words by Anwar al-Awlaki are taken from his lectures, pamphlets, blogs and website:
*The ballot has failed us but the bullet has not.
* My recommendation would be for my brothers who are Pakistan [sic] to give support physically and financially for their brothers in Afghanistan... we are talking about a stage where this support is obligatory and not recommended or voluntary, and when something is an obligation it becomes a sin and a shortcoming by not being a part of it.
* The Taliban paid the price for offering a safe haven for the foreign mujahideen: they lost their government. But that is not a defeat but a victory, because in the eyes of Allah you have won, no matter what the worldly costs are, if you have held on firmly to your religion, and you have lost, no matter what the worldly gains are, if you have wavered in your religion. We should open our houses for the mujahideen among us and we should offer them the support they need.
* Preparing for Jihad is obligatory... The issue is so critical that if arms training is not possible in your country then it is worth the time and money to travel to another country to train if you can.
* If a Muslim kills each and every civilian disbeliever on the face of the earth he is still a Muslim and we cannot side with the disbelievers against him.
* The hatred of kuffar [non-Muslims] is a central element of our military creed. We need to realise that Allah will not grant us victory as long as we still have some love towards his enemies in our hearts.
* What Jihad needs is mujahideen who have the ability to walk for long hours, to run for long distances (important for guerrilla warfare), to sprint (important for urban warfare), and to climb mountains.
Source: The Centre for Social Cohesion, a British think-tank
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