Yemen’s Defense Ministry claimed that today its forces killed Anwar al Awlaki, the American cleric who serves as an operational commander for al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Samir Khan, another American who runs Inspire magazine, is also said to have been killed.
“The government of the Republic of Yemen announced today the death of Anwar Al Awlaki, the American born terrorist and member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” the message stated. “Awlaki was targeted and killed 8 KM from the town of Khashef in the Province of Jawf (140KM east of the Capital Sana’a). The operation was launched earlier today at around 9:55 AM, local time.” Al Jawf province is a haven for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Defense Ministry later said that Khan was also killed in the same strike. Khan runs AQAP’s English-language propaganda, and has published an article in Inspire entitled “I Am Proud to be a Traitor to America.” Prior to leaving the US last year, he ran the pro-al Qaeda Inshallahshaheed website.
The Defense Ministry statement on Awlaki conflicts with tribal sources who told AFP that Awlaki was killed in an airstrike that hit two vehicles in Marib province, another AQAP haven in Yemen’s south.
Although the Yemeni military claimed it carried out the strike, the US has been targeting AQAP leaders and fighters in the south using strike aircraft and unmanned Predator and Reaper drones. There have been seven such strikes confirmed this year; the last was on Sept. 22 in Abyan province, where the Yemeni military has been battling AQAP for control of the provincial capital of Zinjibar.
An unnamed senior US official today claimed that Awlaki was targeted in a US Predator strike and said he was indeed killed. Earlier today, according to The New York Times, top US security and counterterrorism officials held a video teleconference on the subject of Awlaki’s death.
A few hours later, President Obama stated that Awlaki’s death was “a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate,” Fox News reported. He warned that the killing of Awlaki “is “further proof that Al Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.”
The Fox News report also states that Awlaki and Shah were killed by Hellfire missiles fired by two Predator drones hovering about Awlaki’s convoy, and that the operation was carried out under the CIA’s direction by the Joint Special Operations Command.
AQAP has not released an official statement announcing Awlaki’s death or denying the reports.
The US military’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA are known to operate the armed Predators and Reapers from bases in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Bases are also being built in Ethiopia and an unnamed country on the Arabian Peninsula. The bases are to be used to attack al Qaeda affiliates Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Since December 2009, some of the top leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been targeted in US airstrikes, including Abu Basir al Wuhayshi, the group’s leader; Said Ali al Shihri, the second in command; Abu Hurayrah Qasim al Raymi, the military commander; Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, the top ideologue; and Awlaki.
The Obama administration has approved operations that would lead to the assassination of Awlaki, and has labeled him as one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous leaders. The US added him to its list of designated terrorists on July 16, 2010. Unlike Adam Gahdan, the US-born al Qaeda propagandist who is based in Pakistan, Awlaki has not been charged with treason, despite his multiple statements against the US and his active support for al Qaeda.
In the past, Yemeni officials have claimed that Awlaki has been killed, only to have the AQAP leader reappear in propaganda tapes. On Dec. 24, 2009, the US targeted Awlaki and several other top al Qaeda leaders at a meeting in southern Yemen. Awlaki was at the meeting to provide the needed religious justification for a planned al Qaeda campaign to conduct attacks against Yemeni and US targets in response to the controversial Dec. 17 airstrikes against al Qaeda in Abyan and Sana’a, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal. Among those believed to be at the meeting were Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; his deputy Said al Shihri; and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al Quso, an al Qaeda operative wanted by the FBI for his role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Yemeni officials claimed the leaders were killed, but they survived the airstrike.
Awlaki has been the target of at least one other US airstrike this year. On May 5, US aircraft targeted Awlaki, but he survived. Two mid-level AQAP operatives were said to have been killed in the attack.
Awlaki is perhaps the most notorious member of AQAP. His sermons have garnered a wide audience on the web because of his fluency in English. US counterterrorism officials have directly implicated him in recent terror plots, including Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 as well as Major Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009 that killed 13 US soldiers. Awlaki also had an operational role in the plot to blow up British Airways planes. In addition, European jihadists traveling to Pakistan are known to have met with Awlaki while traveling to Asia.
For more information on Anwar al Awlaki, see LWJ reports:
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.