The same US military counter-terrorism unit that got Osama bin Laden has used a drone and jet strike in Yemen to kill a US-born cleric suspected of inspiring or helping plan numerous attacks on the United States, US and Yemeni officials say.
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Anwar al-Awlaki was killed on Friday in a strike on his convoy directed by the CIA and carried out with the firepower of the US Joint Special Operations Command, a counter-terrorist official said.
The cleric known for fiery anti-American rhetoric and use of the Internet to spread his message was suspected of inspiring a mass shooting at Fort Hood Army base in Texas in 2009 and taking a more direct role in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner the same year.
He is the most prominent al-Qaeda figure to be killed since bin Laden.
Word of his death from the US comes after the government of Yemen reported that Awlaki was targeted and killed on Friday near the town of Khashef, about 140km from the capital Sanaa.
US officials said counter-terrorism cooperation between the US and Yemen had improved in recent weeks, allowing the US to gather better intelligence on Awlaki’s movements.
The ability to better track him was a key factor in the successful strike, US officials said.
A US-based group that specialises in monitoring jihadist organisations described Awlaki’s death as a “significant blow to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)”.
IntelCenter said in a statement that Awlaki’s death “would especially impact the group’s ability to recruit, inspire and raise funds”.
It said that although AQAP would suffer because of Awlaki’s “unprecedented” ability to “influence and connect to a broad demographic of potential supporters”, it remains one of the most dangerous militant branches in the region.
However, IntelCenter said that despite Awlaki’s death, AQAP still posed a “direct threat to the US”, adding that the group’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is blamed for planning attacks on American territory, remains in charge.
Awlaki, who had eluded capture for years, was believed to be a key AQAP leader.
The charismatic preacher who spoke fluent English was seen as having the unique ability to recruit al-Qaeda operatives in the West.
In April last year, a US official said the Obama administration had authorised the targeted killing of Awlaki, after American intelligence agencies concluded the cleric was directly involved in anti-US plots.
Awlaki’s death is the latest in a run of high-profile kills for Washington under President Barack Obama. But the killing raises questions that the death of other al-Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, did not.
Awlaki is a US citizen who had not been charged with any crime. Civil liberties groups have questioned the government’s authority to kill an American without trial.
US officials have said they believe Awlaki inspired the Fort Hood shooter, army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan, who is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the November 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas.
In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt said he was “inspired” by Awlaki after making contact over the internet.
Awlaki also is believed to have had a hand in mail bombs addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, packages intercepted in Dubai and Europe in October 2010.
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