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Radical American cleric killed in Yemen, officials say

/ Source: NBC News and news services

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, as they disclosed detailed intelligence to justify the killing of a U.S. citizen.

Anwar al-Awlaki was killed early Friday in a strike on his convoy carried out by a joint operation of the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, according to counterterrorism officials. Al-Awlaki had been under observations for three weeks while they waited for the right opportunity to strike.

President Barack Obama said al-Awlaki's death "is a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate" and that it "marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida."

"This is further proof that al-Qaida and its affiliates will have no safe haven anywhere in the world," Obama said, adding that Awlaki's death was a result of the government of Yemen joining international efforts against the militants.

He spoke Friday at a retirement ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., for Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed Obama's comments, saying "this has been a bad year for terrorists."

"Awlaki was a primary target because his continuing efforts to plan attacks against the United States," Panetta said, adding, "this country is much safer as a result of the loss of Awlaki."

The targeting of al-Awlaki was authorized in a secret memo written by the Justice Department after senior officials reviewed legal issues raised by killing a U.S. citizen, . There was no dissent about the legality of killing him, officials told the Post.

Following the strike, a U.S. official outlined new details of al-Awlaki's involvement in anti-U.S. operations, including the attempted "underwear" bombing on Dec. 25, 2009, of a U.S.-bound aircraft. The official said al-Awlaki specifically directed the man accused of trying to bomb the Detroit-bound plane to detonate an explosive device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties.

The official also said al-Awlaki had a direct role in supervising and directing a failed attempt to bring down two U.S. cargo aircraft by detonating explosives concealed inside two packages containing copier ink cartridges mailed to the U.S. The U.S. also believes Awlaki had sought to use poisons, including cyanide and ricin, to attack Westerners.

The U.S. and counterterrorism officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters.

Al-Awlaki is the most prominent al-Qaida figure to be killed since Osama bin Laden's death in May. He was killed by the same U.S. military unit that got bin Laden.

Second American killed
Another U.S. official said a second American citizen died in the airstrike that killed al-Awlaki. Two other men also perished.

The second American, Samir Khan, edited the slick Western-style Internet publication Inspire Magazine that attracted many readers. 

The online magazine published seven issues offering articles on making crude bombs and how to fire AK-47 assault rifles. U.S. intelligence officials have said that Khan — who was from North Carolina — was not directly responsible for targeting Americans.

A senior Obama administration official said al-Awlaki "wrote several articles for AQAP's Inspire Magazine in order to promote al-Qaida's violent narrative to Westerners and encourage individual action against innocent men, women and children," NBC News reported.

U.S. word of al-Awlaki's death came after the government of Yemen reported that he had been killed Friday about five miles from the town of Khashef, some 87 miles from the capital, Sanaa.

"We found his body in pieces," said Abubakr al-Awlaki, a leader of the Awalik tribe, to which Awlaki belonged. "Why kill him in this brutal, ugly way? Killing him will not solve their problem with al Qaeda, it will just increase their strength and sympathy for (AQAP) in this region."

The airstrike was carried out more openly than the covert operation that sent Navy SEALs into bin Laden's Pakistani compound, U.S. officials said.

Counterterror cooperation between the United States and Yemen has improved in recent weeks, allowing better intelligence-gathering on al-Awlaki's movements, U.S. officials said. The ability to track him better was a primary factor in the success of the strike, U.S. officials said.

Inspiration to jihadists?
Al-Awlaki's death is the latest in a run of high-profile kills for Washington under Obama. However, the killing raises questions that the death of other al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden, did not.

Al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, who had not been charged with any crime. Civil liberties groups have questioned the government's authority to kill an American, even one based abroad and with stated anti-American aims, without trial.

U.S. officials have said they believe al-Awlaki inspired the actions of Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the attack at Fort Hood, Texas.

A senior Obama administration official said Hasan attended al-Awlaki's sermons in the U.S., and kept in touch with him via email, NBC News reported. After Hasan allegedly carried out the attack, the official said, al-Awlaki praised his "student and brother" on his blog.

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

Al-Awlaki also is believed to have had a hand in mail bombs addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, packages intercepted in Dubai and Europe in October 2010.

Intelligence officials also painted a picture of al-Awlaki contrary to his public persona, saying that he wasn't the most pious of individuals and was said to be dating a Croatian stripper.

Awlaki was not a senior Islamic cleric, nor a commander of AQAP, which is led by a Yemeni named Nasir al-Wahayshi, but he played a key role in the group's global outreach.

"Awlaki's death won't hurt al-Qaida's operations because he didn't have a leadership role. But the organization has lost an important figure for recruiting people from afar," said Said Obeid, a Yemeni analyst on al-Qaida.

Al-Awlaki's death "will especially impact the group's ability to recruit, inspire and raise funds as al-Awlaki's influence and ability to connect to a broad demographic of potential supporters was unprecedented," said terrorist analyst Ben Venzke of the private intelligence monitoring firm, the IntelCenter.

Al-Awlaki's writing, preaching
But Venzke said the terror group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula will remain the most dangerous regional arm "both in its region and for the direct threat it poses to the U.S. following three recent failed attacks," with its leader Nasir al-Wahayshi still at large.

Al-Awlaki wrote an article in the latest issue of the terror group's magazine justifying attacking civilians in the West. It is titled "Targeting the Populations of Countries that Are at War with the Muslims."

Earlier in his career, Awlaki preached at mosques in the United States attended by some of the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, attacks. He served as imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., a Washington suburb, for about a year in 2001.

The mosque's outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, has said that mosque members never saw al-Awlaki espousing radical ideology while he was there, and he believes al-Awlaki's views changed after he left the U.S.

Yemen's continuing turmoil
Yemen has been mired in turmoil after eight months of mass protests demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down, something he has reiterated he will do only if his main rivals do not take over.

"Because if we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given into a coup," Saleh told The Washington Post and Time magazine in an interview published on Friday, a week after he made a surprise return from Saudi Arabia.

He had been recuperating in Riyadh from a June bomb attack on his Sanaa compound that badly burned and wounded him.

His return halted talks over a Gulf-brokered transition plan that had been revived despite violence that has killed more than 100 people in Sanaa in the past two weeks.

Opposition groups accuse Saleh of giving militants more leeway in a ploy to frighten Western powers and convince them that he is the best defense against al-Qaida.

"Awlaki serves the government as a way to scare the West," said protest organizer Manea al-Mattari. "They want to improve their image in the West after all the killing they have done."

Thousands of pro- and anti-Saleh demonstrators took to the streets of Sanaa again on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.

Protesters carried 13 bodies, wrapped in Yemeni flags, of people killed in fighting in the capital this week. Asked about al-Awlaki's death, one demonstrator said it was irrelevant.

"Nobody cared about his death today and we wonder why the government announced it now. We have much bigger problems than Anwar al-Awlaki," said Fayza al-Suleimani, 29.