Image: Anwar al-Awlaki
AFP - Getty Images, file
Anwar al-Awlaki was implicated in a botched attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound plane at Christmastime in 2009.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/1/2011 6:48:47 AM ET 2011-10-01T10:48:47

The killing of the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki will instill a "sense of doom" in al-Qaida's surviving leaders, a senior American military official told The New York Times.

The official, who was not named by the paper, said al-Awlaki's death was "critically important" and would send an important message to everyone in the terrorist network.

He spoke as New York's police commissioner Ray Kelly said the city's force was on high alert in case al-Awlaki's followers tried to stage a retaliatory attack.

"We know al-Awlaki had followers in the United States including New York City, and for that reason we remain alert to the possibility that someone might want to avenge his death," Kelly said in a statement.

"He was a powerful recruiter of terrorists in the United States," he said.

The Times reported that the airstrike that killed al-Awlaki and fellow U.S. citizen Samir Khan, 25, was the culmination of a two-year manhunt.

Close calls
It said there had been some close calls, including a U.S. drone strike in May and a previously unreported operation led by Yemen's counterterrorism commandos.

The elite unit and army soldiers surrounded a village and tried to persuade local leaders to hand al-Awlaki over, a member of the unit told the paper.

"We stayed a whole week, but the villagers were supporting him," the counterterrorism officer, who is not authorized to speak on the record," told the Times. "The local people began firing on us, and we fired back, and while it was happening, they helped him to escape."

Story: Radical American cleric killed in Yemen, officials say

The senior U.S. military official told the Times that the ultimate success of the attempts to kill al-Awlaki would limit the capabilities of al-Qaida.

"It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them. Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. It's hard for them to attack when they're trying to protect their own back side," he said, according to the paper.

Can U.S. legally kill a citizen without due process?

However one Islamist figure, Anjem Choudhry, an Islamic scholar in London, told the Times that al-Awlaki's death would spread his fame.

"The death of Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki will merely motivate the Muslim youth to struggle harder against the enemies of Islam and Muslims. I would say his death has made him more popular," he said.

Story: Plenty of al-Qaida targets remain after Osama bin Laden's death

However, at the Washington-area mosque where al-Awlaki preached a decade ago, there were few tears over his death.

Most worshippers at Dar al-Hijrah for Friday services said they were glad that al-Awlaki was gone — that he besmirched not only their mosque but all of Islam by calling for the deaths of innocent Americans.

'Good for humans'
Khalid Abutaa was among those happy to hear the news that al-Awlaki was dead.

"It's good. It's good for Muslims. It's good for humans," said Abutaa, a retired chef. "In our religion, we're not supposed to kill nobody."

Others rejected both al-Awlaki's calls for violence against Americans and the U.S. airstrike that killed him in Yemen early Friday, saying he hadn't even been charged with a crime.

Story: Radical cleric influenced many plots, US says

Leaders of the mosque issued a statement saying that although al-Awlaki "encouraged impressionable American-Muslims to attack their own country," they deplored "extra-judicial assassination" and believed the drone attack "sends the wrong message to law-abiding people around the world."

Hassan Mohamed, 62, said no allegations against al-Awlaki had been proven.

"I don't know why he should be killed," he said. "I don't approve of my government going around the world to kill innocent people."

But a small few were unrepentant in their support of al-Awlaki, though most were unwilling have their names attached to their views.

The mosque endures some level of hostility from the general public.

'Got your little buddy'
On Friday morning, as a crowd started to gather outside the mosque before midday services, a bicyclist rode by and shouted, "Yeah, they got your little buddy, didn't they?" then spit on the ground before pedaling off.

Jibril Hough, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, N.C., told The Associated Press that leading members of the local Muslim community had tried to persuade Khan to abandon his Islamist beliefs and renounce violence.

Video: Second American killed in al-Awlaki strike

Hough said he called Khan's father in 2008 after Samir's ideology became known and arranged a counseling session, "an intervention of sorts."

There were two meetings in Hough's home over the course of a month involving Khan, his father and a handful of other respected members of the Muslim community, Hough said. Each lasted several hours.

"He was very respectful — kind of quiet. He didn't give us a big argument. There was a time or two he tried to state his case. He was pretty much respectful of the circle we'd set up, and he listened," Hough said.

The few words Khan tried to offer then involved defending his view supporting the killing of innocent people, Hough said.

'I am a traitor to America'
Khan cut off ties with his family when he went to Yemen in 2009, Hough said.

He had spent several years in the U.S. editing a web site praising al-Qaida leaders.

"I was quite open about my beliefs online and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I was al Qaeda to the core," Khan wrote in the fall 2010 issue of Inspire magazine, an online publication. "I am a traitor to America because my religion requires me to be one."

Khan's life in Yemen involved helping produce the irreverent, graphics-heavy Internet magazine aimed at recruiting young Muslims to the jihadi cause with articles such as, "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom."

Hough said Khan's family was in mourning Friday and did not want to talk about their son, who was 25.

"Even though we don't believe in the path he was going or the way he was thinking, he was still a human being, still a human life, and he was still someone's son," Hough said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Expert: Al-Awlaki's death 'major blow' to al-Qaida ops

Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: A look at Al-Qaida

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