Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born al-Qaeda leader, was killed in a drone strike in central Yemen, the country’s military has announced.
Fluent in English and driven by a hatred of his homeland, Awlaki has been a pivotal figure in the group. A skilled propagandist, he was the spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP) and had inspired daring attacks by the group worldwide.
Yemeni security forces said they had conducted an operation to target Awlaki and his bodyguards in Marib province. Western sources said a US drone strike had hit his convoy in a remote area and that local military commanders had confirmed his death.
President Barack Obama authorised the US military to target Awlaki last year, a controversial and legally fraught move in light of his US citizenship. Awlaki had inspired serval audacious attacks in recent years including the 2009 Christmas underwear bomber, an attack in Fort Hood military base by a US army major and the stabbing of Stephen Timms MP.
One tribal chief in the area of the attack said that the plane that carried out the strike was likely to be American, adding that US aircraft had been patrolling the skies over Marib for the past several days.
“US planes have been flying overhead for days now,” said the tribal source would requested anonymity. “Then this morning, at about 9:30, what appeared to be a US aircraft fired on the two cars Awlaqi and his fellow operatives are believed to have been travelling in.”
Born in New Mexico in the United States in 1971, Awlaki is a U.S. citizen. He graduated in civil engineering from Colorado State University and holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from San Diego State University.
Awlaki’s family is well-known in Yemen. His father is a former agriculture minister, Nasser al-Awlaki.
Awlaki is a former imam of mosques in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Virginia. Two of those mosques were attended by some of the September 11, 2001, hijackers. He travelled to Yemen in 2004, where he taught at a university before he was arrested and imprisoned in 2006 for suspected links to al Qaeda and involvement in attacks.
He was released in December 2007 because he said he had repented, a Yemeni security official said. But he was later charged again on similar counts and went into hiding.
Last year the U.S. administration authorised operations to capture or kill Awlaki. “Awlaki is a proven threat,” said a U.S. official at the time. “He’s being targeted.”
Michael Leiter, America’s chief counter-terrorism official said Awlaki and AQAP probably posed “the most significant risk to the US homeland.”
He reportedly survived an attack by a U.S. drone in Yemen in May, according to Al- Arabiya television, which cited a member of his tribe.
“He is an excellent role model for what al-Qaeda wants its recruits to be in terms of English language, having exposure to the United States or the West, and adhering to the doctrine of al-Qaeda,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
A May 18 report by analyst Carl Ungerer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said Awlaki was the world’s main Islamic-militant security threat because he can recruit directly in English to persuade a broader, more disparate group of people to operate on their own, rather than in the centralized organization built by Osama bin Laden and largely dismantled since 2001.