Friday, September 30, 2011

Anwar al-Aulaqi, U.S.-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda, reported killed in Yemen

SANAA, Yemen — Anwar al-Aulaqi, a radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric and one of the most influential al-Qaeda operatives wanted by the United States, was killed Friday in an airstrike in northern Yemen, authorities said, eliminating a prominent recruiter who inspired attacks on U.S. soil.

In Washington, a senior Obama administration official confirmed that Aulaqi is dead.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said intelligence indicates that the 40-year-old cleric, a dual national of the United States and Yemen, perished in an attack on his convoy by a U.S. drone and jet, the Associated Press reported.

The Yemeni Defense Ministry, in a text message sent to journalists, announced that “the terrorist Anwar al- Aulaqi has been killed along with some of his companions,” but did not provide further details. The report could not be independently verified; Aulaqi has been falsely reported killed before.

In a separate e-mailed statement, the Yemeni government said Aulaqi was “targeted and killed” five miles from the town of Khashef in Yemen’s northern Jawf province, 87 miles east of the capital Sanaa. The attack, the statement said, was launched at 9:55 a.m. Friday local time.

While the Defense Ministry said Aulaqi was killed in Marib province, other government sources said he was killed in neighboring Jawf province.

A Yemeni security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Aulaqi was killed in an airstrike, possibly by an unmanned American drone. The Obama administration in recent months has escalated the use of drones to target al-Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen and Somalia.

If true, Aulaqi’s death would be considered a significant victory in the U.S. war against global terrorism. It comes less than five months after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda network, in a raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Aulaqi, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, has been implicated in helping to motivate several attacks on U.S. soil. He is said to have inspired an Army officer who allegedly killed 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., as well as a Ni­ger­ian student accused of attempting to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner the following month and a Pakistani American man who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in May 2010. Aulaqi has also been linked to an attempt in 2010 to send parcel bombs on cargo plans bound for the United States.

In April 2010, the Obama administration authorized his targeted killing. U.S. officials alleged that he is a top leader in al-Qaeda’s Yemeni wing, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Aulaqi, who lived in Virginia and was the imam of a mosque in Falls Church, left the United States in 2002. He was detained in Yemen in 2006 at the request of the United States but was released later that year. His lectures in English on Islamic scripture have drawn in countless followers online.

Earlier this year, Michael Leiter, the U.S. official in charge of analyzing terrorism threats, told a congressional committee that Aulaqi and AQAP probably posed “the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the killing of Aulaqi “a great success in our fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” as well as a “tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community.”

In a statement Friday, King added: “For the past several years, [Aulaqi] has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been. . . . Despite this vital development today, we must remain as vigilant as ever, knowing that there are more Islamic terrorists who will gladly step forward to backfill this dangerous killer.”

As a fluent speaker of both English and Arabic and a savvy user of Web sites, Aulaqi was able to gather a following online and radicalize Muslims he had never met, earning him a reputation as “the bin Laden of the Internet,” U.S. officials said.

Among those who attended his sermons were three of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the accused Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Ni­ger­ian who allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underwear, reportedly told interrogators that he had met with Aulaqi in Yemen earlier that year and that the cleric helped plan the attack and provide religious justification for it.

Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to the attempted May 2010 car bombing in Times Square, never met Aulaqi but contacted him over the Internet and told interrogators the cleric had inspired him, officials have said.

Aulaqi was hired in 2001 to be the imam at Dar al-Hijrah, the Falls Church mosque that would later come under scrutiny by U.S. investigators looking into connections to terrorism cases.

“Before he came to Dar al-Hijrah, I didn’t know anything about him,” said Bassam Estwani, one of the early founders of the mosque and former chairman of its board. “Brothers from California recommended him as a good scholar.”

Estwani said he was stunned by Aulaqi’s transformation into a radical Islamist, adding that he “never saw any sign of extremist thinking” in the young cleric. Aulaqi was “very nice, very disciplined, polite, helpful to everyone,” Estwani said in an interview. “He was a scholar, spoke both languages, Arabic and English, very well. I wondered to myself afterward is he the same person who spoke here?”

Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, Aulaqi was in demand as an articulate spokesman for American Islam and interfaith understanding. He did a chat about Ramadan on and allowed a Post videographer to chronicle a day in the life of an American imam.

Eventually, however, federal investigators learned that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers — Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi — had briefly worshiped at Dar al-Hijrah when Aulaqi was the imam there. The FBI and the federal 9/11 Commission were unable to determine whether Aulaqi met with the hijackers then. But they noted that he and some of the hijackers had met the year before at his former mosque in San Diego.

The commission’s report said the two hijackers’ appearance at Dar al-Hijrah in 2001 “may not have been coincidental.”

In 2002, after Aulaqi had already left the mosque and gone abroad, he returned one last time to Northern Virginia. Hossein Goal, a former member of Dar al-Hijrah’s executive committee, and newly hired Imam Johari al-Malik met with Aulaqi at a Northern Virginia cafe to try to persuade him to return to the mosque, Johari said.

He turned them down, saying the atmosphere for Muslims after 9/11 was just too toxic. He said he could find an even bigger platform in the Arab states, and described a few of the options he was pursuing. He was seriously considering running for parliament in Yemen, he told told Goal and Malik. He also was mulling hosting a television show in one of the Persian Gulf states or landing a teaching job at an Islamic university.

Later, media reports surfaced that during his time leading a mosque in San Diego, Aulaqi had been arrested on allegations of soliciting prostitutes and was once spotted in Washington with escorts.

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