x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Air strike kills American cleric Al Awlaki in Yemen

The 40-year-old was for years an influential mouthpiece for Al Qaeda's ideology of holy war, and his English-language sermons urging attacks on the United States were widely circulated among militants in the West.

The 40-year-old was for years an influential mouthpiece for Al Qaeda's ideology of holy war, and his English-language sermons urging attacks on the United States were widely circulated among militants in the West.
The 40-year-old was for years an influential mouthpiece for Al Qaeda's ideology of holy war, and his English-language sermons urging attacks on the United States were widely circulated among militants in the West.

SANAA // A US air strike in Yemen yesterday killed Anwar Al Awlaki, an American militant cleric who became a prominent figure in Al Qaeda's most dangerous branch, using his fluent English and internet savvy to draw recruits for attacks in the United States.

The strike was the biggest US success in hitting the terror network's leadership since the May killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But it raises questions that other strikes did not: Al Awlaki was an American citizen who has not been charged with any crime. Civil liberties groups have questioned the government's authority to kill an American without trial.

The 40-year-old was for years an influential mouthpiece for Al Qaeda's ideology of holy war, and his English-language sermons urging attacks on the United States were widely circulated among militants in the West.

US officials say he moved into a direct operational role in organising such attacks as he hid alongside Al Qaeda militants in the mountains of Yemen. Most notably, they believe he was involved in recruiting and preparing a young Nigerian who on Christmas Day 2009 tried to blow up a US airliner heading to Detroit, failing only because he botched the detonation of explosives that were sewn into his underpants.

Yemen's Defence Ministry and US officials said a second American militant was killed in the same strike alongside Al Awlaki.

The officials named the second dead American as Samir Khan, a US citizen of Pakistani heritage who produced Inspire, an English-language Al Qaeda Web magazine that spread the word on ways to carry out attacks inside the United States. US and Yemeni officials said two other militants were also killed in the strike but did not immediately identify them.

Washington has called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the branch in Yemen is called, the most direct threat to the United States after it plotted the Christmas Day attack and a foiled attempt to mail explosives to synagogues in Chicago.

Barack Obama, the US president, declared Al Awlaki's killing a "major blow" to Al Qaeda's most active affiliate, and vowed a vigorous US campaign to prevent the terror network and its partners from finding safe haven anywhere in the world.

In July, the US defence secretary Leon Panetta had said Al Awlaki was a priority target alongside Ayman Al Zawahri, bin Laden's successor as the terror network's leader.

The Yemeni-American had been in the US crosshairs since Mr Obama approved his killing in April 2010, making him the first American placed on the CIA "kill or capture" list. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where Al Awlaki was suspected of being, but he was not harmed.

The operation that killed Al Awlaki was run by the US military's counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command - the same unit that killed bin Laden.

The Yemeni government announced that Al Awlaki was "targeted and killed" around 9.55am outside the town of Khasaf in a desert stretch of Jawf province, 140 kilometres east of Sanaa.

A tribal leader who requested anonymity gave an account of the strike based on information from Khamis Arfaaj, the owner of the house in which Al Awlaki was staying. Mr Khamis, who gave a higher death toll than official sources, said Al Awlaki and six others took their breakfast and moved about 600 metres away from the house.

Once they had their food ready, they noticed aircraft overhead. They moved to their car but a missile hit it. It killed Al Alwaki, Salem bin Arfaaj, Mohammed al Naaj and Khan. Mr Khamis said two others thought to be from the Gulf and a seventh person who remains unknown were also killed. He said the bodies were collected into four sacks and buried in the village of Al Khasf.

He said Al Awlaki was in transit to neighbouring Marib province.

Residents of the area said at least seven US drones were seen patrolling the skies during the last three weeks.

The region lacks government security and its mountains make it a haven for anyone on the run. The local tribes are known to have strong links with extremists.

An analyst said the Al Awlaki killing probably will not help Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is clinging to power.

"It was a fully American operation in a region which is out of the control of Saleh government," said Faris Al Saqqaf, an expert on Islamist movements and chief of Sanaa-based Future Studies Centre. "The Americans cannot depend on such a decaying regime."

"The Americans have trained Saleh relatives and their troops to fight terrorism," he said, "but they are busy in confronting the anti-regime protesters."

Al Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, began as a mosque preacher as he conducted his university studies in the United States, and he was not seen by his congregations as radical. While preaching in San Diego, he came to know two of the men who would become suicide hijackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The FBI questioned Al Awlaki but found no cause to detain him.

In 2004, Al Awlaki returned to Yemen, and in the years that followed, his English-language internet sermons turned to denunciations of the United States and calls for holy war.

He exchanged up to 20 emails with US Maj Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people in a 2009 rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by Al Awlaki's internet sermons.

Al Awlaki has said he did not tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, but later praised Hasan as a "hero" on his Web site.

In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was "inspired" by Al Awlaki after making contact over the internet.

Yemeni officials have said Al Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen in 2009. They believe Al Awlaki met with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other Al Qaeda leaders, in Al Qaeda strongholds in the country in the weeks before the failed bombing.

With reporting by Mohammed Al Qadhi, Hakim Almasmari and the Associated Press