Nightly News   |  September 30, 2011

US: Radical American cleric killed in Yemen

An American-born cleric killed in Yemen played a "significant operational role" in plotting and inspiring attacks on the United States, U.S. officials said Friday. Anwar al-Awlaki was implicated in a botched attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound plane in 2009. NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports.

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>>> good evening. i'm savannah guthrie , in tonight for brian. tonight one of america's most wanted terrorists is dead. his name may not have been as well known as osama bin laden 's, but officials say anwar al-awlaki was just as dangerous. an american-born citizen who later joined al qaeda , if you ask top u.s. officials to name the terrorist they were most worried about in recent years he would be at the top of the list. from yemen officials say he planned some of the terror plots from the botched christmas day underwear bombing to the massacre at ft. hood to an attempted car bomb in times square . he was killed in yemen by a u.s. hellfire missile . jim miklaszewski joins us with the latest. good evening.

>> reporter: al-awlaki was considered so dangerous, president obama put him on the u.s. kill or capture list. the only american to be specifically targeted by american forces in the war against al qaeda . [ speaking in a foreign language ]

>> reporter: u.s. intelligence officials considered anwar al-awlaki the american-born cleric, the most serious terrorist threat to america. president obama said al-awlaki's death dealt a major blow to al qaeda .

>> al-awlaki was the leader of external operations for al qaeda in the arabian peninsula . in that role he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent americans.

>> reporter: u.s. officials tell nbc news that based on recent intelligence the cia and u.s. military have been closely tracking al-awlaki for weeks. today, the americans zeroed in on al-awlaki, traveling in a two-vehicle convoy through yemen . as many as three missiles fired from american drones slammed into the convoy, destroying the vehicles and killing al-awlaki and six others, including another american, samir khan, editor for al qaeda 's online propaganda magazine, "inspire" and ibrahim al asiri, but officials say al-awlaki was the brains behind repeated attempts to attack the u.s. home land. the jet liner over detroit and the attempt to blow cargo planes out of the sky with explosives hidden in printer ink cartridges in october 2010 .

>> this country is much safer as a result of the loss of al-awlaki.

>> reporter: al-awlaki's ability to inspire and recruit potential terrorists was considered his most dangerous weapon .

>> anwar al-awlaki was by far the most effective communicator al qaeda had.

>> reporter: al-awlaki was the inspiration between army major nadal hassan's shooting spree that killed 14 soldiers and a failed attempt by the so-called times square bombing . terrorism experts fear, even in death, hundreds of his internet postings could breed potential terrorists at home.

>> given the fact that so many of his recorded sermons are out there, that he's a powerful icon he may be as much trouble dead as he was alive.

>> reporter: in some respects u.s. officials consider al-awlaki a more insidious threat than osama bin laden himself and fear that a lone wolf may be lurking somewhere in the u.s. preparing to retaliate. savannah?

>> jim miklaszewski at the pentagon. thank you.