Sanaa, Yemen The killings of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and another American al-Qaida propagandist in a U.S. airstrike Friday wipe out the decisive factor that made the terrorist group’s Yemen branch the most dangerous threat to the United States: its reach into the West.
Issuing English-language sermons on jihad on the Internet from his hideouts in Yemen’s mountains, al-Awlaki drew Muslim recruits like the young Nigerian who tried to bring down a U.S. jet on Christmas and the Pakistani-American behind the botched car bombing in New York City’s Times Square.
Friday’s drone attack was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so. Al-Awlaki was placed on the CIA “kill or capture” list by the Obama administration in April 2010 — the first American to be so targeted.
Late Friday, two U.S. officials said intelligence indicated that the top al-Qaida bomb-maker in Yemen also died in the strike. Ibrahim al-Asiri was the bomb-maker linked to the bomb hidden in the underwear of the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because al-Asiri’s death has not officially been confirmed.
Authorities also believe he built the bombs that al-Qaida slipped into printers and shipped to the U.S. last year in a nearly catastrophic attack.
Christopher Boucek, a scholar who studies Yemen and al-Qaida, said al-Asiri was so important to the organization that his death would “overshadow” the news of al-Awlaki and the other American killed in the strike, Samir Khan.
Khan published a slick English-language Web magazine, “Inspire,” that spouted al-Qaida’s anti-Western ideology and even offered how-to articles on terrorism — including one titled, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
The voices of Khan and al-Awlaki elevated the several hundred al-Qaida fighters hiding out in Yemen into a greater threat than similar affiliates of the terror network in North Africa, Somalia or east Asia.
President Barack Obama heralded the strike as a “major blow to al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate,” saying the 40-year-old al-Awlaki was the group’s “leader of external operations.”
“In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama told reporters in Washington, saying al-Awlaki plotted the Christmas 2009 airplane bombing attempt and a foiled attempt in 2010 to mail explosives to the United States.
Al-Awlaki’s death was the biggest success in the Obama administration’s intensified campaign to take out al-Qaida’s leadership since the May killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The pursuit of al-Awlaki and Friday’s strike were directed by the same U.S. special unit that directed the Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden’s hideout.
After three weeks of tracking the targets, U.S. armed drones and fighter jets shadowed al-Awlaki’s convoy, before drones launched the lethal strike early Friday, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.