Drone strike ends long hunt for U.S.-born Awlaki

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) -The killing of Anwar  al-Awlaki in Yemen yesterday by a U.S. drone strike is the  culmination of two years of extensive U.S. efforts to track  down the American-born member of al Qaeda and put him out of  action.

Anwar al-Awlaki

Awlaki, identified by U.S. intelligence as “chief of  external operations” for al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and a  Web-savvy propagandist for the Islamist cause, was killed in an  attack by missiles fired from multiple CIA drones in a remote  Yemeni town, U.S. officials said.

Among three other people killed in the attack, a U.S.  official said, was Samir Khan, another American who turned to  militancy and served as editor of “Inspire,” a glossy magazine  used as a propaganda and recruitment vehicle by al Qaeda in the  Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Yemen-based group is deemed by  U.S. officials to be one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous  offshoots.

A U.S. official described the other two people killed in  the attack as “unidentified associates” of Awlaki and Khan.

President Barack Obama hailed the Awlaki strike as “another  significant milestone” in efforts to defeat al Qaeda and proof  that it and its allies will find no safe haven. “The death of  Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational  affiliate,” Obama said.

U.S. officials said that Awlaki had been a subject of  intense interest from American and other counter-terrorism  agencies at least since late 2009, when he was implicated in  two serious incidents directed at American targets.

An official said that Awlaki and AQAP also were responsible  for “numerous terrorist attacks” in Yemen and nearby countries  in which “scores of Muslims” died. A European official said  Awlaki was also implicated in at least two British  counter-terrorism investigations, one of which involved an  employee of British Airways.

A U.S. official said that despite extensive and continuing  civil turmoil in Yemen, “The Yemeni government’s  counterterrorism program has remained strong.” Other U.S.  officials said that during the last several years in which  political disorder has reigned, the U.S. has stepped up  unilateral efforts to collect intelligence and conduct  counter-terrorism operations in Yemen.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss  intelligence matters.

The U.S. now has access to facilities in nearby countries  including Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and the Seychelles from which  it can launch drones and ground-based intelligence and  counter-terrorism operations, a U.S. official said. This helps  explain why U.S. intelligence collection efforts in Yemen have  remained productive despite political upheaval there.

U.S. forces had conducted at least two earlier operations  against Awlaki in Yemen, including an unsuccessful drone attack  four days after the May 1 raid during which U.S. commandos  killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden at his hide-out in  Pakistan.

“This was a terrorist who wasn’t simply a propagandist, but  over the years had become an operational figure who was  increasingly focused on planning and carrying out attacks  against the United States and our allies,” a senior U.S.  defense official said. “A very bad man just had a very bad  day.”

“GLOBAL TERRORIST”

The U.S. government branded Awlaki a “global terrorist”  last year. He had earlier been targeted by U.S. forces  authorized to kill him because of what Washington believed was  the role he played in radicalizing English-speaking Muslims and  because of his alleged role in plots to attack U.S. targets. Awlaki was implicated in at least two major U.S. incidents  in 2009. Following the shooting attack on soldiers at Ft. Hood,  Texas, in which U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan has  been charged, investigators found evidence that Hasan had been  in e-mail contact with Awlaki.

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