A Hellfire missile fired from an American drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki on Friday, ending a two-year hunt for a radical cleric who had called on his followers to attack the U.S. any way they could.
Some details of the strike are sketchy. U.S. officials and the Yemeni Defense Ministry both confirmed that a drone had fired on a convoy of cars that was carrying Awlaki in northern Yemen. They said it was a joint operation, but it is unclear what role the Yemeni military played in the attack.
"Make no mistake," President Obama told an audience at Fort Myer, Va. "This is further proof that al-Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world."
Also thought to be killed in the operation is another American, Samir Khan, a young editor at Inspire, al-Qaida in Yemen's online English-language magazine.
Khan wrote in the magazine last year that he was a "proud traitor to America." He also wrote a long essay in the latest issue — released last week — that talks about the importance of media jihad and how to use the Internet to spur young Muslims to action.
"The death of Awlaki is particularly important because it weakens al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is emerging as the most effective and dangerous al-Qaida franchise with global aims," said Fred Kagan, the director of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project. "His spiritual and recruiting functions will be difficult for them to replace."
While both Yemen and the U.S. said Awlaki and Khan were killed, intelligence officials often like to see DNA evidence before confirming the death of a terrorist they are tracking. Officials even took a DNA sample from Osama bin Laden to confirm his death. The fact that Awlaki and Khan were killed in the desert of Yemen may make unequivocal identification difficult.
Both the U.S. and Yemen have claimed to have killed key leaders before only to have them reappear some time later. That said, in this case, there appears to be a great deal of certainty that the two men are dead, and officials have not hedged in the way they usually do after these kinds of operations.
The fact that the two men were targeted while in a convoy was also significant. The U.S. nearly killed Awlaki back in May when it received intelligence that he was riding in a line of cars in northern Yemen. A drone fired on his car, officials said, hit the bumper and then created so much dust and confusion that Awlaki was able to climb into a different vehicle and escape.
Awlaki's Life In America
Awlaki, 40, was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. His father was a Fulbright scholar studying in the U.S. Awlaki began preaching in mosques while he was a college student. He preached in both San Diego and Virginia and had some contact with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, although it is unclear whether he was in on that al-Qaida operation.
He returned to Yemen in 2004 and was held there in prison for years before he was released without charge. It was after that prison stint that he became more stridently anti-American in his Internet sermons.
His lectures have been linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the U.S. and Europe. Officials say Awlaki had an enormous following in the West because he spoke English and had a huge Internet presence.
Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is about to stand trial for the 2009 deaths of 13 people during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, had exchanged more than a dozen emails with Awlaki before the shootings. Officials say he was seeking some sort of blessing from Awlaki, and the emails indicate he got it.
Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who tried to ignite a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May 2010, said two things inspired him to carry out the attack: what he saw as the injustice of drone strikes and the inspiration of Anwar al-Awlaki.
The man accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight near Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also allegedly told authorities that Awlaki had helped him prepare for the attack. He said Awlaki told him not to ignite the explosives in his underwear until he was over U.S. soil so it would mean more casualties.
Because they were Americans, the killing of Awlaki and Khan presents some legal problems for the Obama administration. Awlaki, at least publicly, had not been charged with any crime in this country.
A federal grand jury in North Carolina convened last year to decide what charges to level against Khan. That indictment remains under seal. Critics say that killing Awlaki and Khan amounts to a summary execution since neither man was brought to trial.
There is also some debate over whether the U.S. has the legal authority to conduct an attack like this in Yemen.
This isn't the first time the U.S. has launched a military strike against an American terrorism suspect. Back in 2002, an American named Kamal Derwish was part of an effort to recruit Americans for al-Qaida. He persuaded six Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., to go to Afghanistan and train with al-Qaida about a year before the Sept. 11 attacks. Derwish was killed when an airstrike took out a convoy in which he was riding in the deserts of Yemen.
The U.S. didn't admit to the killing for years. Eventually U.S. officials said al-Qaida operatives he was riding with were the targets, and he was just collateral damage.
Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen is considered by the U.S. to be its most active and most dangerous. Awlaki is just one person in that organization, but with him gone, it could blunt the group's recruiting efforts.
The question intelligence officials are asking now is whether Awlaki's followers who aren't in Yemen might decide to seek revenge against the U.S.