The New York Times reports this morning that officials in both Yemen and Washington claim that American-born Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki has reached room temperature somewhere in Yemen:
In a significant and dramatic strike in the campaign against Al Qaeda, the Defense Ministry here said American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in the group’s outpost in Yemen, was killed on Friday morning.
In Washington a senior Obama administration official confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was dead. But the circumstances surrounding the killing remained unclear.
It was not immediately known whether Yemeni forces carried out the attack or if American intelligence forces, which have been pursuing Mr. Awlaki for months, were involved in the operation.
A Defense Ministry statement said that a number of Mr. Awlaki’s bodyguards also were killed.
A high-ranking Yemeni security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mr. Awlaki was killed while traveling between Marib and al-Jawf provinces in northern Yemen — areas known for having an Al Qaeda presence, where there is very little central government control. The official did not say how he was killed.
Awlaki has a long history of terrorism against the US. At first considered a moderate cleric — the Bush administration invited him to the Pentagon as part of their outreach program after 9/11 — he became a suspect in the 9/11 attacks after at least three of the hijackers were traced to his mosque. Awlaki fled the US and eventually masterminded the Christmas Day underwear plot in 2009 as well as a later plot to destroy cargo airplanes bound for the US, and at least inspired the Fort Hood massacre and other so-called “lone wolf” attacks.
These kind of early reports from places like Yemen have often proven wrong, although having confirmation from Washington makes it a little more reliable. That also strongly hints that US forces were involved in the killing, which may mean hints will be all we’ll get. As an American citizen, his status created controversy for the Obama administration when it became clear that they had tasked the military and intelligence communities with killing rather than apprehending him. Awlaki put himself in that position by conducting a war against the US, though, and in war a belligerent has no particular duty to apprehend anyone who doesn’t surrender to their forces, regardless of their nationality. For political reasons, don’t expect the same kind of celebration at the White House over Awlaki’s termination as was seen after Osama bin Laden’s death.
Assuming that Awlaki is really dead, though, this could be a bigger operational deal than getting bin Laden. Awlaki’s group, AQAP, was by far the most active internationally among AQ affiliates, and his intimate knowledge of the US made him a dangerous foe. His death won’t be the end of AQ’s attempts to create home-grown jihadis and infiltrators, but it will make that task a lot more difficult.
Update: Let’s not forget, however, that we’ve prematurely celebrated the end of this jihadi at least once before.
Sources in Yemen clarify why the rumor that he survived started: there were two missiles, he survived the first one …. but that second one? That one was the kill shot.
Samir Khan fled the US to Yemen and began producing the al-Qaeda recruitment “magazine” Inspire. That makes two less Americans for AQ to consult on recruiting home-grown jihadis. Be sure to read more at Khan at MPJ.
Update III: ABC News now reports on Khan’s demise:
A young American who edited al Qaeda’s English-language magazine, and had urged Muslims to mount deadly attacks on U.S. targets, was killed in the same CIA drone strike that eliminated Anwar Awlaki in Yemen Friday, U.S. officials said.
Khan, 25, was the Saudi-born, New York-raised editor behind “Inspire” magazine, the English language online publication of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Khan had become a rising figure in jihadist propaganda and an “aspiring” Awlaki, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
But while Awlaki relied on sermons to recruit jihadis, Khan used sarcasm and idiomatic English in an attempt to appeal to Western youth. As Khan himself has said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I [am] Al Qaeda to the core.” He titled a rebuke of toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “A Cold Diss.” Khan’s ability to use American vernacular, like a graphic depicting graffiti that reads, “Jihad 4 Eva,” had prompted concerns that young Muslims with an interest in jihad and al Qaeda would be drawn to a voice similar to their own.
“He does appear to be increasingly involved with operational activities [of Al Qaeda]”, a U.S. official told ABC News in 2010.