SANAA, Yemen — Anwar al-Aulaqi, a radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric and one of the most influential al-Qaeda leaders wanted by the United States, was killed Friday in a CIA drone strike in northern Yemen, U.S. and Yemeni authorities said, eliminating a prominent terrorist recruiter who inspired attacks on U.S. soil.
The strike also killed a second U.S. citizen — Samir Khan, the co-editor of an al-Qaeda magazine — and two other unidentified al-Qaeda operatives, the Yemeni government said. But tribal leaders in the area said at least seven people were killed. They identified one of the others as al-Qaeda militant named Salem bin Arfaaj.
In Washington, senior Obama administration officials confirmed that Aulaqi, 40, a dual national of the United States and Yemen, and Khan were killed in a drone strike on their convoy.
The strike was carried out by a CIA drone operating from a new agency base on the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. officials said. It marks the first time that the CIA has launched a drone strike in Yemen since 2002, and the first indication that the new base is operational. The Post is withholding details on the specific location of the base at the request of the Obama administration.
President Obama called Aulaqi’s death “a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate” and described him as “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” a group known as AQAP.
“In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama said at a ceremony honoring the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Fort Myer.
Khan, a member of AQAP, co-edited the group’s slick English-language Internet magazine, Inspire, which was intended to recruit Westerners to al-Qaeda’s fold. Aulaqi was also believed to have played a role in creating the online-only magazine, whose first issue in July 2010 included an article titled “Making a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” Khan, a Saudi-born U.S. citizen raised in Queens, N.Y., and Charlotte, traveled to Yemen to join AQAP and probably operated under Aulaqi’s direction, terrorism experts have said.
Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemeni government spokesman, said in an e-mail that Yemeni intelligence had pinpointed Aulaqi’s hideout and monitored his movements before the airstrike.
The first word of the strike came from the Yemeni Defense Ministry, which sent a text message sent to journalists announcing that “the terrorist Anwar al-Aulaqi has been killed along with some of his companions.” It did not provide further details. Aulaqi had been falsely reported killed before. He had been the target of previous U.S. strikes and was quoted as laughing off an attempt to kill him in May.
In a separate e-mailed statement, the Yemeni government said Aulaqi was “targeted and killed” five miles from the town of Khashef in Yemen’s northern Jawf province, 87 miles east of the capital, Sanaa. The attack, the statement said, was launched at 9:55 a.m. Friday local time.
The Obama administration in recent months has escalated the use of drones to target al-Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen and Somalia.
In a telephone interview, a tribal leader in Jawf province, near the site of the attack, said American drones had been flying over the region for days. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from both Aulaqi’s tribe and the government, the tribal leader said Aulaqi had been moving in the provinces Marib and Jawf for the past three weeks because he was concerned he could be targeted in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province, where he had long sought shelter under the protection of his powerful tribe.
Yemen’s official Saba news agency quoted an unnamed al-Qaeda operative arrested by Yemeni security forces as saying that Aulaqi lived in Khashef with bin Arfaaj, one of the al-Qaeda militants who was killed, and his brother, Khamis.
A second tribal leader in Jawf, who also requested anonymity, said by telephone that Khamis bin Arfaaj told him that a total of seven people were killed in the airstrike, which involved two separate missile attacks, moments apart.
According to this account, Aulaqi and his crew had eaten breakfast and had just left the house toward their cars, parked about 700 yards from the house. They heard the drone, and then first missile struck, killing some of the operatives. Aulaqi was apparently killed in the second strike as he and others ran toward a pickup truck to escape, the tribal leader said, quoting Khamis. After the attack, which tore the bodies to pieces, Khamis and other men buried Aulaqi and his comrades nearby and left, the tribal leader said.
Aulaqi’s relatives declined requests for interviews Friday. In a text message, his brother Amar wrote, “Let us grieve please,” and his father, Nasser, was not reachable. He is believed to have traveled to Jawf to identify his son’s remains. Another relative reached at the family’s house in Sanaa appeared very upset and hung up the phone. Members of his tribe in Shabwa expressed anger at the Yemeni government for cooperating with the United States in hunting down Aulaqi. None agreed to give their names.
Yemen’s deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi, declared the attack a success in Yemen’s campaign against al-Qaeda. He quoted President Ali Abdullah Saleh as saying Aulaqi’s death showed that “the state is capable of reaching any terrorist.”
Said Obaid, a Yemeni political analyst who wrote a book about al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, said he found it difficult to believe that Saleh’s regime played a significant role in killing Aulaqi, given its focus on containing the uprising and remaining in power.
“The Yemeni government’s role was opening the door and giving the Americans the green light to conduct attacks,” said Obaid. “The Yemeni government does not have the capabilities.”
Obaid said Aulaqi played a major role in spreading propaganda and recruitment for the branch while boosting its terrorist ambitions beyond Yemen’s borders. But he predicted that his death would be unlikely to weaken AQAP, because Aulaqi will be depicted as a martyr.
“Al-Qaeda is going to use his death to perform many more operations, especially since he was killed by an American airstrike,” he said Obaid. “Al-Qaeda is known for using such incidents to its advantage.”
Obama said Aulaqi had “directed” failed attempts to blow up U.S. planes and had “repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.” He said Aulaqi and his organization also were “directly responsible for the deaths of many Yemeni citizens.”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “remains a dangerous but weakened terrorist organization,” Obama said. “But make no mistake: This is further proof that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.” He vowed that “we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.”
At the Pentagon, a senior defense official confirmed that “for some time, the Yemenis have played a key role in the hunt for Aulaqi.”
The official said: “Aulaqi’s demise deals a decisive blow to al-Qaeda in Yemen. This was a terrorist who wasn’t simply a propagandist, but over the years had become an operational figure who was increasingly focused on planning and carrying out attacks against the United States and our allies. A very bad man just had a very bad day. It’s a good day, though, for American counterterrorism efforts — and for counterterrorism cooperation with the government of Yemen.”
Opposition leaders in Yemen expressed concern Friday that Aulaqi’s death could boost American support for Saleh, allowing him to remain in power longer. They noted that senior American counter terrorism officials have in recent weeks lauded Saleh’s security forces and intelligence apparatus for their cooperation.
“There is fear that the Americans will give priority for coordinating with this regime rather than with the revolution and for the support of democracy,” said Mohammed Qahtan, a top opposition official. “There is a group within the American administration that is moving in this direction.”
Saleh, he added, will try “very hard to use Aulaqi’s death to blackmail the Americans” into giving him more support.
Senior Yemeni officials said on Friday that they hoped Aulaqi’s killing would alter the U.S. stance on seeking a swift transfer of power and that they were already making their case.
“The Americans are now going to reach an understanding that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is serious about fighting terrorism,” said Abdu Al-Janadi, the deputy information minister. The Obama administration, he added, should support elections rather than demand that Saleh step down immediately. “If Ali Abdullah Saleh resigns, this will leave a power vacuum that will result in civil war.”
Janadi said he was disappointed by comments by the State Department on Friday that Aulaqi’s death would not change U.S. demands for Saleh to transfer power.
“This does not help their strategy, because Ali Abdullah Saleh is their ally, and they should take into consideration that what happened to Aulaqi will have negative consequences on the government,” said Janadi, suggesting there could be a backlash for cooperating with the United States. Most Yemenis are against any military intervention, especially by a Western power.
The opposition, Janadi alleged, is already portraying Saleh as a stooge of the United States, who “has opened the border to allow Americans to come in and to attack and kill Yemenis.”
Aulaqi’s death comes less than five months after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda network, in a raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Aulaqi, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, has been implicated in helping to motivate several attacks on U.S. soil. He is said to have inspired an Army officer who allegedly killed 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., as well as a Nigerian student accused of attempting to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner the following month and a Pakistani American man who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in May 2010. Aulaqi has also been linked to an attempt in 2010 to send parcel bombs on cargo plans bound for the United States.
In April 2010, the Obama administration authorized his targeted killing. U.S. officials alleged that he was a top leader in al-Qaeda’s Yemeni wing, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Aulaqi, who lived in Virginia and was the imam of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, left the United States in 2002. He was detained in Yemen in 2006 at the request of the United States but was released later that year. His lectures in English on Islamic scripture have drawn in countless followers online.
This year, Michael Leiter, the U.S. official in charge of analyzing terrorism threats, told a congressional committee that Aulaqi and AQAP probably posed “the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the killing of Aulaqi “a great success in our fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” as well as a “tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community.”
In a statement Friday, King added: “For the past several years, [Aulaqi] has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been. ... Despite this vital development today, we must remain as vigilant as ever, knowing that there are more Islamic terrorists who will gladly step forward to backfill this dangerous killer.”
Speaking to reporters in Annapolis, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (Md.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said: “This is a great day for America. This is probably the second-biggest blow to al-Qaeda since the killing of Osama bin Laden.”
Ruppersberger, who was briefed by the CIA after the airstrike, characterized the killing of Khan as “collateral damage,” because he said U.S. forces were not initially aware that the second U.S. citizen would be traveling with Aulaqi. However, Ruppersberger added that the death was “a plus” for the United States because the purpose of Khan’s Internet magazine was to “recruit individuals who wished to attack America.”
But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, called the killing of Aulaqi an “assassination” of an American citizen without trial.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, also expressed reservations.
“As we have stated repeatedly in the past, the American Muslim community firmly repudiated Anwar al-Awlaki’s incitement to violence, which occurred after he left the United States,” it said in a statement. “While a voice of hate has been eliminated, we urge our nation’s leaders to address the constitutional issues raised by the assassination of American citizens without due process of law.”
After a short sermon at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque Friday, Imam Shaker Elsayed informed worshipers of Aulaqi’s death and said, “May Allah give him mercy.” He added: “When anyone leaves this life . . . their judgment is reserved by Allah. Aulaqi is in between the hands of his creator.” Speaking about those who killed Aulaqi, Elsayed said, “They need to equally prepare for that moment” when they also will be judged by Allah.
Earlier, Dar al-Hijrah worshiper Tariq Nelson said the news of Aulaqi’s death rips open a wound that congregants wish would heal. “When you feel like you’ve been continuously embarrassed, it’s painful and humiliating,” he said.
Nelson said Aulaqi is a “confusing” figure at Dar al-Hijrah, because his sermons and views were moderate and promoted interfaith and nonviolence when he was the imam there. Nelson said he disagreed with the anti-American statements later attributed to Aulaqi, but added that Dar al-Hijrah members will likely be concerned about the U.S. government targeting an American citizen.
As a fluent speaker of both English and Arabic and a savvy user of Web sites, Aulaqi was able to gather a following online and radicalize Muslims he had never met, earning him a reputation as “the bin Laden of the Internet,” U.S. officials said.
Among those who attended his sermons were three of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the accused Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underwear, reportedly told interrogators that he had met with Aulaqi in Yemen that year and that the cleric helped plan the attack and provide religious justification for it.
Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to the attempted May 2010 car bombing in Times Square, never met Aulaqi but contacted him over the Internet and told interrogators the cleric had inspired him, officials have said.
A group of Islamist militants who conspired to attack U.S. military personnel at Fort Dix, N.J., in 2007 also drew inspiration from Aulaqi’s sermons, according to evidence presented at their trial.
Aulaqi was hired in 2001 to be the imam at Dar al-Hijrah, the Falls Church mosque that would later come under scrutiny by U.S. investigators looking into connections to terrorism cases.
“Before he came to Dar al-Hijrah, I didn’t know anything about him,” said Bassam Estwani, one of the early founders of the mosque and former chairman of its board. “Brothers from California recommended him as a good scholar.”
Estwani said he was stunned by Aulaqi’s transformation into a radical Islamist, adding that he “never saw any sign of extremist thinking” in the young cleric. Aulaqi was “very nice, very disciplined, polite, helpful to everyone,” Estwani said in an interview. “He was a scholar, spoke both languages, Arabic and English, very well. I wondered to myself afterward is he the same person who spoke here?”
Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, Aulaqi was in demand as an articulate spokesman for American Islam and interfaith understanding. He did a chat about Ramadan on washingtonpost.com and allowed a Post videographer to chronicle a day in the life of an American imam.
Eventually, however, federal investigators learned that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers — Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi — had briefly worshiped at Dar al-Hijrah when Aulaqi was the imam there. The FBI and the federal 9/11 Commission were unable to determine whether Aulaqi met with the hijackers then. But they noted that he and some of the hijackers had met the year before at his former mosque in San Diego.
The commission’s report said the two hijackers’ appearance at Dar al-Hijrah in 2001 “may not have been coincidental.”
In 2002, after Aulaqi had already left the mosque and gone abroad, he returned one last time to Northern Virginia. Hossein Goal, a former member of Dar al-Hijrah’s executive committee, and newly hired Imam Johari Abdul-Malik met with Aulaqi at a Northern Virginia cafe to try to persuade him to return to the mosque, Abdul-Malik said.
He turned them down, saying the atmosphere for Muslims after Sept. 11 was just too toxic. He said he could find an even bigger platform in the Arab states, and described a few of the options he was pursuing. He was seriously considering running for parliament in Yemen, he told told Goal and Abdul-Malik. He also was mulling hosting a television show in one of the Persian Gulf states or landing a teaching job at an Islamic university.
Later, media reports surfaced that during his time leading a mosque in San Diego, Aulaqi had been arrested on allegations of soliciting prostitutes and was once spotted in Washington with escorts.
Aulaqi’s death comes one week after Saleh, the Yemeni president, returned from Saudi Arabia, following treatment for severe injuries from a June attack on his presidential compound. It was not immediately clear how Aulaqi’s death could affect the fortunes of Saleh, who is considered by the United States to be a close counterterrorism ally.
Yet the Obama administration has also been urging a speedy transfer of power, which Saleh has defiantly resisted. He has often proclaimed that Yemen would plunge into chaos and al-Qaeda would reign if he were to step down abruptly.
Since the Fort Hood shootings, the United States has pressured Yemeni authorities to capture Aulaqi. But those efforts largely failed because of the government’s limited resources and lack of authority in Yemen’s south, where Aulaqi’s influential tribe protected him.
As Yemen’s populist uprising gathered momentum, weakening Saleh’s grip and ushering in a widening political crisis, Yemeni officials said this year that finding Aulaqi had become even less of a priority. Al-Qaeda-linked militants had taken over parts of southern Abyan province, including its provincial capital of Zinjibar, and Yemen’s military and security forces have been battling the Islamic militants to regain control.
The Obama administration has long been concerned that AQAP and Aulaqi could exploit Yemen’s growing lawlessness and power vacuum and expand their foothold in the south, allowing them to plan more attacks against the United States and its allies.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, a Yemeni judge last November ordered Aulaqi’s capture, dead or alive, for his failure to appear in court to respond to allegations that he had persuaded a Yemeni man to kill a French citizen who worked at an oil company. Two days later, Aulaqi, in a video, called for his followers to kill Americans. In January, a Yemeni court sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison for his role in inciting followers to kill foreigners.
Still, Aulaqi remained free. In interviews this year, Aulaqi’s relatives, tribesmen and neighbors said they had spotted him on several occasions in public, walking on streets and attending public gatherings. There was apparently little effort by local authorities to take him into custody.
Even top ruling party officials conceded earlier this year that it was the responsibility of the United States to find Aulaqi because it had the technology to track him down and kill him — while the Yemenis, they said, had no idea of his whereabouts.
It was not clear whether Aulaqi had moved from southern Yemen to the north, or whether he was simply visiting the area when he was targeted. He had sympathizers in both Marib and Jawf provinces, where there is a significant al-Qaeda presence.
“Sheik Anwar is an intelligent man. He knows how to apply pressure on America,” Abdullah al-Juaili, a tribal leader in Jawf, said in an interview earlier this year. “I don’t believe he is al-Qaeda. If he comes to al-Jawf, no one will touch him.”
Still, Aulaqi had good reasons to leave the south or move to and from different parts of the country. In May, a missile strike from U.S. drone was aimed at killing him; other militants in southern Yemen have been targeted by the United States.
Staff writers William Branigin, Greg Miller, Karen DeYoung, William Wan, Michelle Boorstein, Greg Jaffe, Aaron C. Davis and Kafia Hosh in Washington and special correspondent Mohammed al-Qadhi in Sanaa contributed to this report.WaPo