May 7, 2011 in Nation/World

Strike targeted U.S.-born cleric

Al-Awlaki uninjured in drone attack in Yemen
David S. Cloud Tribune Washington bureau
Associated Press photo

In this image released by SITE Intelligence Group in 2010, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video posted on the Internet.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – A U.S. drone attack in Yemen was an attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born militant suspected of involvement in multiple terrorist plots against the United States, but he eluded the missiles, a U.S. official said Friday.

The strike Thursday, less than a week after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, was the first U.S. drone strike in Yemen since 2002.

The timing suggests that bin Laden’s death may be prompting the U.S. to carry out operations that it might have passed up in the past, as well as edging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh toward allowing such strikes after resisting them for the last year.

The specific targeting also indicates U.S. intelligence is developing a sharper focus on high-priority terrorists, although American officials told news agencies that a trove of information seized from the bin Laden compound in Pakistan did not have any influence on the al-Awlaki mission.

The U.S. official said multiple missiles were launched during the attack in the southern province of Shabwa and that two men were believed killed, but al-Awlaki managed to get away, apparently uninjured. Yemen’s Defense Ministry confirmed Thursday’s drone attack had killed two al-Qaida militants, identifying them as brothers Musaid and Abdullah Mubarak Daghar, but it provided no other details.

Al-Awlaki, 40, was born in New Mexico and educated in the U.S. He was once considered a peaceful cleric and was even invited to the U.S. Capitol after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to deliver a prayer for Muslim congressional staffers.

But he gradually became more radicalized, eventually fleeing to Yemen, where he has emerged as a key leader in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of bin Laden’s group that has been involved in numerous attempts to attack U.S. targets in recent years.

The United States stepped up drone flights over Yemen last year in an effort to find al-Awlaki and the group’s other top leaders.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said Friday that Saleh imposed tight restrictions on when drones would be allowed to fire at militants. But as Saleh has faced increasing pressure from internal opponents to give up power in recent months, his reluctance to consider drone strikes has eased, the counterterrorism official said, apparently hoping that doing so would win him continued backing from the Obama administration.

Al-Awlaki’s name was added last year to a secret list of targets that the CIA is authorized to kill after the Obama administration concluded that the charismatic cleric, known for his fiery sermons circulated on jihadist websites denouncing the U.S., had taken on an operational role in attempted terrorist attacks.

He is believed to be the first U.S. citizen the CIA has been given authorization to kill or capture since 2001. The only other U.S. citizen believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike was in Yemen in 2002, when a car was struck by a Hellfire missile, killing five passengers, including Ahmed Hijazi, a suspected militant who held U.S. citizenship.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say they have evidence that al-Awlaki helped recruit and prepare Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian suspected of attempting to bomb an U.S. airliner on Christmas Day on 2009, as well as several other plots.

Al-Awlaki’s calls for jihad against the U.S. are also thought to have inspired Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a truck bomb in New York’s Times Square last May, and Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 29 people and wounding 13 in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.

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