(Updates with details of killing in second paragraph.)
Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamic cleric who masterminded the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane in 2009 with explosives hidden in underwear, has been killed in Yemen, the Defense Ministry said.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a missile from an American drone aircraft killed al-Awlaki in a joint CIA-military operation. He was targeted and killed near the town of Khashef, 170 kilometers (106 miles) northeast of Sana’a, the capital, the Yemeni foreign press office said today. Intelligence services say he inspired a shooting rampage that killed 13 people last year at an army base in Fort Hood, Texas.
Al-Awlaki is identified by the Office of Foreign Assets Control list of “specially designated nationals” as a 40-year- old native of Las Cruces, New Mexico, with dual U.S. and Yemeni citizenship. Last year, President Barack Obama approved an order making him the first American ever to be placed on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hit list.
“He is an excellent role model for what al-Qaeda wants its recruits to be in terms of English language, having exposure to the United States or the West, and adhering to the doctrine of al-Qaeda,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
Yemen’s government is under considerable strain following almost nine months of anti-government protests aimed at toppling President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Karasik said.
Al-Awlaki reportedly survived an attack by a U.S. drone in Yemen in May, according to Arabiya television, which cited a member of his tribe. He was an avid blogger and used the Internet to communicate with followers around the world, something that “propelled him to international fame,” IHS Global Insight analysts Gala Riani and Jeremy Binnie said today.
Obama, speaking at the start of a swearing-in ceremony for the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, in Fort Meyer, Virginia, called al-Awlaki’s death a “major blow” against al-Qaeda that “marks another significant milestone in the effort to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an e-mailed statement that countries must “keep up the pressure on Al-Qaeda and its allies and remain vigilant to the threat we face.”
Al-Awlaki’s death follows that of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed on May 2 in a U.S. raid on an Islamabad, Pakistan suburb.
Boost for Obama
The fact that a drone killed al-Awlaki means “an immediate return on Obama’s recent decision to increase the use” of umnanned vehicles in Yemen, Riani and Binnie wrote in an e- mailed report. “These foreign and security credentials are likely to boost Obama’s bid of re-election next year.”
Pakistani-American Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda militant living in Yemen, died in the same attack that killed al-Awlaki, Yemeni state-run Saba news agency reported, citing an unidentified security official.
Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in Washington, called al-Awlaki’s killing “the latest of many affronts to domestic and international law. If we allow such gross overreaches of power to continue, we are setting the stage for increasing erosions of civil liberties and the rule of law.”
Yemen, bin Laden’s ancestral home, was the site of a 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors. Since the start of anti-government protests inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia this year, concerns about the deterioration of security in Yemen have grown. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in April that he saw Saleh’s possible fall as a “real problem.”
In the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. that killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon just outside Washington and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, al-Qaeda offshoots have sprung up around the Islamic world, from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa to Iraq and the Arabian peninsula.
An Obama administration official said al-Awlaki directed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to blow up a U.S. jetliner in December 2009 with explosives hidden in his underpants. Al-Awlaki instructed Abdulmutallab to detonate the device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties, the official said. He also sought to use weapons of mass destruction, including cyanide and ricin, to attack Westerners, the U.S. official said.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch was further highlighted last October when two parcel bombs sent from the country to U.S. synagogues were seized in the U.K. and Dubai. The bombing attempts, in which devices were concealed in printer cartridges, prompted the U.S. and European countries to bar flights or cargo from Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group, has been examining how to develop body bombs stitched into a terrorist’s belly, breasts or buttocks, Seth Jones, a senior political scientist for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, California-based policy research organization, said in a July 18 interview.
Yemen, which gets about $300 million a year in security and humanitarian assistance from the U.S., stepped up operations against al-Qaeda after the parcel-bomb attempts, including air strikes targeting the group’s camps. Military aid to Yemen includes Huey helicopters, Hummer vehicles and night-vision goggles, the Pentagon said in August 2010.
Given al-Awlaki’s popularity, revenge attacks may be carried out in the U.S. and Yemen, IHS analysts Riani and Binnie wrote. “His death will likely be considered a victory for both governments,” they said.
--With assistance from Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon and Margaret Talev, Roger Runningen, Mark Silva and John Walcott in Washington. Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Karl Maier
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