Al Qaeda’s most famous Internet preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed Friday morning in Yemen by a missile attack, after weeks of U.S. forces tracking his movements very closely. “They were waiting for the right opportunity to get him away from any civilians,” said one administration official. Awlaki, born in New Mexico in 1971, had quickly become an influential terrorist leader, working as both an English-language propagandist for Al Qaeda, and as a senior operational planner for the group, as the “chief of external operations” for the network’s Yemeni branch. Awlaki’s Internet sermons have been linked to attempted terrorist attacks in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, including the Fort Hood shootings at the hands of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the attempted underwear bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the failed Times Square bombing, and the stabbing of a member of the British Parliament. “Jihad,” Awlaki said last year, “is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.”
A Yemeni official told the New York Times that Awlaki was killed along with a number of his bodyguards in the country’s northern provinces, which are known for having a strong presence of the local Al Qaeda affiliate, called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. government “had a very intense focus on him,” one senior White House official said, and even had “a good opportunity to hit him” on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, although “it never materialized.” Awlaki was “very operational, every day he was plotting, he had very unique skills, and it’s good to get him in Yemen where [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is planting the flag.”
Awlaki was known for his magnetism, and spent his formative years in Yemen after leaving the United States at the age of 7. He vacationed in Afghanistan and later moved back to the United States, where he developed into a noted radical imam, even selling a box set of his lectures on CD. F.B.I. agents interviewed Awlaki four times in the days after 9/11, and he was thought to have been a part of the hijackers’ support network, although his exact role was never determined.
By June of 2010, Awlaki’s influence on domestic terrorism had become well-known. The CIA director at the time, Leon Panetta, told ABC, “Awlaki is a terrorist, and yes, he’s a U.S. citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist and we’re going to treat him like a terrorist. We don’t have an assassination list, but I can tell you this, we have a terrorist list and he’s on it.” Today, a senior administration official said, “This is a great day for America.”
Officials Thought They Might Kill Awlaki on 9/11 Anniversary [ABC News]
Anwar al-Awlaki, American-Born Qaeda Leader, Is Killed in Yemen [NYT]
Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad [NYT]