Airstrikes hit suspected Al Qaeda members in Yemen

The Yemeni government said it carried out airstrikes Thursday on a suspected gathering of Al Qaeda operatives and indicated that a radical cleric linked to the shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas, may have been among those killed.

“Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault” before dawn on a compound in the southern part of the country, says a statement issued Thursday by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Anwar al Awlaki, a cleric who communicated with the accused Ft. Hood gunman before the attack last month at the Army base and who afterward applauded the carnage that left 13 dead, is among those who “were presumed to be at the site,” the Yemeni government statement said.

U.S. military and intelligence officials said it was unclear whether Awlaki was at the targeted site.

Awlaki is a U.S. citizen who was born in New Mexico and was associated with mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before moving to Yemen in 2002. His extremist sermons have been cited as a major source of motivation for suspects in a series of alleged terrorist plots disrupted in the United States and abroad.

News reports in Yemen indicated that as many as 30 suspected Al Qaeda figures were killed in Thursday’s operation, which was conducted by the Yemeni military with U.S. intelligence support.

The statement from the Yemeni Embassy said the strikes were aimed at “scores of Yemeni and foreign Al Qaeda operatives” believed to be plotting attacks in the country.

The United States considers Yemen an important center of Al Qaeda strength and has been looking for ways to improve counter-terrorism operations there.

At the prodding of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni military has escalated its campaign against militants in recent months.

Last week, Yemeni forces killed 28 militants and captured 17 at an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in the south.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Al Qaeda’s presence in the Arabian peninsula has become a “destabilizing influence in the region.”

“We strongly support Yemeni actions against Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which poses a serious terrorist threat to Yemeni, U.S. and regional interests,” Whitman said.

Washington provided Yemen with $70 million in military aid this year.

The CIA has carried out strikes in Yemen using Predator aircraft dating back to 2002, when one of the drones fired a missile at a vehicle carrying Al Qaeda leader Qaed Sinan Harithi, a suspected mastermind of the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole two years earlier. Harithi and a U.S. citizen in the vehicle were killed.

There was no indication that CIA drones took part in Thursday’s attack.

Some accounts indicated that the strike was directed at a house owned by the Awlaki family, about 200 miles southeast of Sana, the nation’s capital, but that the cleric’s presence was not confirmed.

“If they did get Awlaki, he was a bad guy,” said a U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We think it is great that they went after these guys. We are fully on board.”

Awlaki was little known beyond counter-terrorism circles until last month, when it was revealed that he had communicated through e-mail with Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. The Army psychiatrist was charged with 13 counts of murder after fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood were gunned down in a rampage just months before he was scheduled to deploy to the war in Afghanistan.

Awlaki’s teachings are suspected of influencing five men convicted last year of planning a shooting attack at Ft. Dix, N.J., and material from him was found among the possessions of accomplices in the suicide bombing attacks on the London transportation system in 2005.

Despite the tone of Awlaki’s sermons, terrorism experts said he is not seen as an operational figure.

“It would be a stretch to see him as someone that would fall into the category of a high-value target to be taken out this way,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “In the past, it has always been people with blood on their hands or in senior operational roles.”

In a recent interview published on Al Jazeera’s website, Awlaki said that Maj. Hasan had contacted him as early as December 2008, asking for guidance on the religious implications of killing fellow soldiers.

Hasan “was asking about killing U.S. soldiers and officers” from his first e-mail contact, Awlaki said, according to the Al Jazeera report. “His question was: Is it legitimate” under Islamic law?

U.S. authorities have said that Hasan and Awlaki traded as many as 18 e-mail messages. Authorities have said that the FBI was aware of the correspondence before the shooting but concluded that Hasan’s inquiries were related to his research as a psychiatrist and saw no cause for alarm.

After the attack, a posting attributed to Awlaki on his website applauded Hasan’s actions, saying the major was “a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.” The posting was titled “Nidal Hasan Did the Right Thing.”

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.