Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American cleric and reputed al Qaeda commander, has been killed in an airstrike, according to Yemen’s Defence Ministry. According to reports the attack was the work of US drones.
According to a brief message sent out by the ministry this morning, “the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions”. Two vehicles were struck in an airstrike in Jawf province, and Awlaki was “targeted and killed”, security officials later said. US counter-terrorism officials also reported the cleric’s death.
Awlaki is sometimes erroneously described as the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), and was also rumoured to have held a mid-level command position in the organisation for some time. A fluent English speaker, his sermons and writings are claimed to have incited many homegrown US Islamic militants.
Links to 9/11
Although Awlaki was initially cleared by the FBI of involvement in events surrounding the 9/11 attacks, speculation had mounted recently that he may have been part of al Qaeda’s operational machinery as long as a decade ago.
At least two of the original 9/11 hijackers attended the US mosque where he preached, though this was initially thought to have been a coincidence.
After leaving the US in 2002, Awlaki spent two years in London before moving to Yemen. There he became increasingly radicalised, and was arrested by Yemeni authorities in 2006. A year later he was released – despite being interviewed on a number of occasions by the FBI.
He disappeared from view, and his popular online sermons soon began to call for jihad against the US. Concerned at his media impact, the US government has been attempting to kill the 40-year-old for at least two years – despite Awlaki’s dual US-Yemeni citizenship.
On December 24 2009, a US covert operation in Yemen failed to kill Awlaki but resulted in the deaths of up to 30 other people.
Mocking the CIA
On May 5 2011 a botched US drone strike also attempted to kill the cleric. Awlaki later mocked the attack in AQAP’s English-language jihadist magazine Inspire, saying ‘It looks as if someone was a bit angry with us this evening.’
There was immediate speculation that a drone strike by US Special Forces was responsible for Awlaki’s death. JSOC, the US Special Forces elite command, is still operating in Yemen despite ongoing political chaos. The New York Times has definitively claimed the attack to be the work of the CIA.
In recent months, dozens of US drone strikes have reportedly taken place across Yemen, as militant Islamists attempted to take control of parts of the country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Those attacks were the work of JSOC – US Special Forces. Until now the CIA was not known to have operational capability for drone attacks in Yemen.
Tonight the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the pre-meditated killing of a US citizen by drones. A spokesman said: ‘As we’ve seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts.’