U.S. Predator drone aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles carried out the targeted killing in northern Yemen of Anwar Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was a U.S. citizen, and also killed another American who produced virulent propaganda for Al Qaeda.
The lethal strike, a CIA-led covert operation that relied on U.S. special operations forces and Yemeni authorities, marks the first time since in the anti-terrorism campaign began after the Sept. 11 attacks a decade ago that the U.S. government deliberately tracked and killed an American citizen.
Officials said Yemeni authorities had interrogated an Al Qaeda operative in their custody, and he had disclosed Awlaki’s hideout at a house in the town of Khashef, in Yemen’s northern Jawf province. The house was placed under surveillance, which lasted for several weeks.
When the convoy drove away from the hideout Friday morning, a pair of Predator drones flying overhead tracked their movement. At least one missile was fired at about 10 a.m., and local reports said the bodies were so mangled that they were buried in sandbags.
U.S. officials said the surveillance and drone attack was code-named Operation Troy. A U.S. Navy amphibious landing ship steamed offshore, the officials said, with Harrier jets prepared to attack the convoy if the Predators failed. The jets were not used.
Although Awlaki was a mid-level figure in Al Qaeda, he cast a potent shadow in U.S. counter-terrorism circles because he spoke fluent English and was effective at reaching disaffected Muslims in the United States and elsewhere via speeches and sermons on the Internet.
His death thus marks not only an escalation of Obama administration efforts to kill leaders of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, but another significant intelligence coup after the CIA-led raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 in Pakistan.
Unlike that raid, U.S. officials were not eager to provide details of the operation against Awlaki, possibly fearing that disclosures about U.S. operations in Yemen could jeopardize future operations.
Awlaki, who was known for his fiery sermons on the Internet and on YouTube urging Muslims to attack the United States, was put on a CIA list of militants to be killed or captured after an Obama administration review last year concluded he played an operational role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group that has carried out numerous terrorist plots against U.S. targets.
Friday’s drone strike also killed Samir Khan, who grew up in New York and ran a pro-Al Qaeda web site in Charlotte, N.C., before he moved to Yemen several years ago. Khan is believed to have founded and edited Inspire, a glossy English-language magazine published in Yemen that praised suicide bombers and methods of mass murder.
Politicians from both parties in Washington applauded the death of the two influential Al Qaeda figures. But the strike also intensified a debate about whether, by killing American citizens without due process or judicial review, the U.S. government had crossed into dangerous legal territory with no clear limits.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials said they did not know in advance that Khan was riding in the convoy with Alwaki. They identified him only after U.S. and Yemeni personnel who rushed to the scene recovered fingerprints from the victims’ remains.
“Samir Khan was a bonus. It was a two-fer,” said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who serves on the House committee on homeland security. “It’s a pretty good hit.”
Two unidentified passengers in the vehicles were also killed, officials said.
In remarks at Fort Myer, Virginia, President Obama stressed the direct role that Awlaki allegedly played in planning and directing terror plots against Americans.
Obama thus offered a glimpse into the government’s analysis into why it was legal to kill a U.S. citizen, which remains secret.
Obama called Awlaki “the leader of external operations” for the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and said he “directed” both the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and a plan to detonate explosives hidden in printer cartidges aboard U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
“And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda,” Obama said.
U.S. forces fired a missile at a convoy in which Awlaki was believed to be a passenger in May, but he escaped.
The only other U.S. citizen known to have been killed by the CIA in a targeted strike was Ahmed Hijazi, who was in a car destroyed in a Predator strike in 2002. But the target was a different passenger, and the CIA did not learn Hijazi was killed until afterward.
Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney at Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, a liberal public interest law firm, challenged the legality of Awlaki’s killing.
“This is an extrajudicial killing, said Kebriaei. Outside a warzone, “the U.S. cannot kill an individual unless that person presents an imminent threat of deadly harm, and lethal force is the last result. That is the standard.”
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also criticized Obama, saying Awlaki should have been tried in a U.S. court like domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
“If the American people accept this blindly and casually, that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys, I think it’s sad,” Paul told reporters in Manchester, N.H.
The drone strike signaled what may be a new phase of U.S. military and intelligence operations in Yemen.
U.S. officials fear that Yemen, which has endured months of deadly violence and tribal fighting, would allow Al Qaeda to strengthen its hold on strategic territory at the intersection of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Awlaki’s death may improve Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s standing as a U.S. ally and help him gain international support to hang onto power, analysts said.
Saleh, who survived an assassination attempt in June, unexpectedly returned from Saudi Arabia this month but has been unable to quell a rebellion against him. His military also has battled Al Qaeda militants, who have stormed police stations and government buildings in some towns.
The CIA has increased operations in Yemen in recent months, joining a U.S. military effort that began several years ago. Officials said U.S. special operation troops have worked closely with the Yemeni government in its efforts to crush the Al Qaeda militants.
Awalki, 40, was born in New Mexico when his father, a Yemeni, was studying agriculture at the state university there. He returned with his family to Yemen when he was 7, but returned as a 19-year-old college student. He received a degree in civil engineering at Colorado State University, where he also was head of the Muslim student association.
Though not formally trained as a Muslim scholar, after college he became an imam at mosques in Denver, San Diego and Virginia, and gradually adopted a radical interpretation of Islam and espoused increasing hostility for his adopted home. Before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was in contact with at least two of the hijackers.
Though initially critical of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, he also came under FBI scrutiny and eventually moved back to Yemen, where he was imprisoned by the Yemeni government for two years. Through long sermons posted over the Internet, on CDs and on a web site, Awlaki began denouncing the United States and aligning himself with Al Qaeda.
He became a charismatic voice and clever recruiter but was not a top military commander in the secretive Al Qaeda affiliate battling government forces to create an Islamic state inside Yemen, experts said.
“Killing him is not a big loss inside Yemen,” said Saeed Ali Obaid Jamhi, an expert on Islamic militants in the region. “He was not so much involved in the Yemen struggle. He was more of an international figure. He was a spiritual inspiration for jihadis and his death will increase the hatred against the Yemen government for allowing U.S. planes and drones to target people inside Yemen.”
In 2010, Awlaki’s father, Nasser Awlaki, challenged the legality of the U.S. government issuing an order to kill an American citizen.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last December on the grounds that Alwaki’s father, a professor of agriculture in Yemen, could not bring the case on his son’s behalf. U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates ruled that Anwar Alawki would have to file the suit himself.
Cloud and Bennett reported from Washington and Fleishman from Cairo.