A radical American -born cleric who played what U.S. officials describe as a "significant operational role" in Al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate has been killed in a U.S. drone strike.
U.S. reports, quoting counterterrorism officials, said Anwar al-Awlaki, the chief English-language propagandist for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed early on September 30 by a Hellfire missile in a joint CIA and Special Operations Command mission.
Speaking at a Washington ceremony to mark the retirement of U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama said Awlaki's death marked "another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
"Earlier this morning, Anwar Awlaki, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen," Obama said. "The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al-Qaeda's most active operational affiliate."
The United States had been hunting Awlaki for more than two years and observed him for three weeks before deciding to strike.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry confirmed Awlaki's death and said the strike occurred near the town of Khashef, 140 kilometers from the capital, Sanaa.
The missile strike appears to be the first time a U.S. citizen has been targeted and killed by American forces since the beginning of the "war on terror" that began after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The country's official news agency, Saba, said the attack also killed an American citizen of Pakistani origin, Samir Khan, who was the editor of "Inspire," the online English-language jihadist magazine of Al-Qaeda.
Four people were killed in the attack, the AP reported, quoting U.S. officials. The strike was carried out by the same U.S. military unit that killed Osama bin Laden at his compound in May.
Counterterrorism and intelligence officials who requested anonymity gave the AP details of the information that led U.S. officials to target Awlaki.
The officials said the Yemeni terrorist leader was involved in the attempted bombing on December 25, 2009, of a U.S.-bound aircraft, specifically directing Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to bomb the Detroit-bound plane, to detonate an explosive device over American airspace to maximize casualties.
They also said he 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 mailed to the United States.
U.S. intelligence officials also believe Awlaki was seeking to use poisons, including cyanide and ricin, to attack Westerners.
Obama described Awlaki as a serious threat to Americans.
"Awlaki was the leader of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Obama said. "In that role he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009, he directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010, and he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women, and children to advance a murderous agenda."
The 40-year-old Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. He left the United States for Yemen in 2004 and quickly became known for his stridently anti-American sermons and lectures, many of which were posted to the Internet.
U.S. officials believe Awlaki inspired Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan to kill 13 people in a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood army base in Texas in 2009. The two men had exchanged emails before the attack.
The Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 car bombing attempt in New York's Times Square, Faisal Shahzad, said he was "inspired" by Awlaki after making contact over the Internet.
Terror analysts say Awlaki's death will make it harder for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to recruit new members and raise funds.
The White House's decision to target an American citizen is not without controversy. Civil rights groups have challenged Obama's asserted authority to carry out targeted killings.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented Awlaki's father in a federal lawsuit against the government. The case was dismissed in December.
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer released a statement that said the White House's "targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law."
CCR Executive Director Vincent Warren said the program "essentially grants the executive the power to kill any U.S. citizen deemed a threat, without any judicial oversight, or any of the rights afforded by our constitution."
compiled from agency reports