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U.S.-Born al Qaeda cleric (Wahabi Extremist) Anwar al-Awlaki killed
Officials: U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric (Wahabi Extremist) Anwar al-Awlaki killed
By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri September 30, 2011
Anwar al-Awlaki was believed to be hiding in Yemen (file photo).
NEW: Officials say a U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki
NEW: Obama calls al-Awlaki's death a "major blow" to al Qaeda
NEW: The ACLU slams the killing as a violation of both U.S. and international law
Al-Awlaki, fluent in English and technology, preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers, a report says
Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki -- an American whose fluency in English and technology made him one of the top terrorist recruiters in the world -- was killed Friday in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, U.S. and Yemeni government officials told CNN.
The strike also killed Samir Khan, an American of Pakistani origin, and two others who were in the same vehicle as al-Awlaki, said the U.S. official, who was briefed by the CIA. Khan specialized in computer programming for al Qaeda and authored the terror network's online magazine, Inspire.
President Barack Obama called al-Awlaki's death a "major blow" to al Qaeda, reeling still from the killing and capture this year of several top leaders, most notably Osama bin Laden.
"His hateful ideology and targeting of innocent civilians has been rejected by the vast majority of Muslims and people of all faiths and he has met his demise because the government and the people of Yemen have joined the international community in a common effort against al Qaeda," Obama said.
He said al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, remains a dangerous but weakened organization.
"Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans," Obama said.
A Yemeni government official told CNN that the killing was the result of a "successful joint intelligence-sharing operation" between Yemen and the United States. The official asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.
A senior U.S. defense official also called al-Awlaki's death a significant loss for al Qaeda, but the Pentagon was not providing any details of the operation.
The United States regarded al-Awlaki, the public face of AQAP, as a terrorist who posed a major threat to American homeland security. Western intelligence officials believe al-Awlaki was a senior leader of AQAP, one of the most active al Qaeda affiliates in the world. It has been linked to the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit in December 2009 and a cargo plane plot last year.
Radical Muslim cleric killed in Yemen
Al-Awlaki death 'major blow' to al Qaeda
"Anwar al-Awlaki didn't need subtitles to indoctrinate," said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation, who called al-Awlaki's death significant. "He spoke English, he understood how to impact the Muslim diaspora in the West."
Al-Awlaki was killed about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Yemeni town of Khashef, east of the capital, Sanaa, said Mohammed Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. He said the operation was launched at 9:55 a.m.
The Yemeni government official said Yemeni intelligence recently located al-Awlaki's hideout in a house in Khashef, in Jawf province, which borders Saudi Arabia.
Al-Awlaki's father filed a lawsuit against Obama, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last year to prevent the U.S. government from trying to target his son for assassination.
A district court judge threw out the case last December, leaving open the question of whether the government has the right to kill Americans abroad without a trial.
Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union said the al-Awlaki killing was part of an American counterterrorism program that "violates both U.S. and international law.
"This is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process," said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer.
But Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, said al-Awlaki was on a "special list" of individuals attempting to attack the United States that is approved by the National Security Council and the president. Targeting those individuals is legal and legitimate, said Ruppersberger, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who was in Yemen two months ago.
Al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and lived in the United States until the age of 7, when his family returned to Yemen. He 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 helped recruit Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Nigerian man known as the underwear bomber, who was charged with trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic 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 Hasan, who is accused of killing a dozen fellow soldiers and a civilian in a rampage at the Texas Army post.
"If you put it into perspective, (Osama) bin Laden's death had global ramifications for the transnational terror movement. Anwar al-Awlaki'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 on 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 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 U.S. government from trying to kill al-Awlaki in Yemen.
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 declined 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 New York Republican said. "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's death 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 killed 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, in Pakistan 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.