Saturday, May 7, 2011

U.S. Tried but Failed to Kill Yemeni Cleric

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The U.S. launched a drone strike in Yemen on Thursday aimed at killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric suspected of orchestrating terrorist attacks in the U.S, but he evaded the missile, Yemeni and U.S. officials said.


Anwar al-Awlaki in a video released late last year.

The attack came days after a U.S. Navy SEALs team killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan. Had Thursday's strike succeeded, the U.S. would have killed two of the most-wanted terrorists in a week.

Mr. Awlaki has emerged as a leading charismatic front-man of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group the U.S. considers the world's most active terror organization. With bin Laden's death, some officials believe Mr. Awlaki and the Yemen-based group now represent the gravest threat to the U.S.

He has been linked to at least three major incidents: the Ft. Hood shootings, the Christmas 2009 plot to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane and a plan to blow up cargo planes.

The attack appears to be unrelated to intelligence information taken in the raid that killed bin Laden, whose death was confirmed by al Qaeda Friday in a statement that vowed to continue attacks on Americans.

European Pressphoto Agency

Yemeni soldiers outside a court that tried the cleric.

The Central Intelligence Agency has been ramping up its intelligence collection in Yemen in recent months and works closely with Saudi intelligence.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been more forthcoming with information on Mr. Awlaki since the president has faced major protests in his country, a U.S. official said. Mr. Saleh has sought to use that information in an effort to gain more U.S. support, the official added. The White House has backed an Arab proposal that would ease Mr. Saleh from office.

The Yemen strike sends a clear message that despite turmoil in the Middle East and the success of the bin Laden operation, the U.S. is resolved to ratchet up a campaign against Mr. Awlaki and other members of his group.

The attempt to kill Mr. Awlaki was the first known U.S. military strike inside Yemen since May 2010, when U.S. missiles mistakenly killed one of Mr. Saleh's envoys and an unknown number of other people. That soured relations and prompted the administration to pull back.

U.S. strikes between December 2009 and May 2010 were carried out by U.S. military aircraft and cruise missiles, not the kind of armed drones used in Thursday's attack. The last known strike by an unmanned aircraft in Yemen was conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002.

According to a Yemeni account of Thursday's strike, the U.S. launched two separate attacks within 45 minutes aimed at Mr. Awlaki in the southern province of Shebwa, which is considered an AQAP stronghold.

The strike was conducted by the U.S. military, but the operation—like the bin Laden raid—appears to have benefitted from close cooperation between the Department of Defense, the CIA and Yemeni officials.

In the first strike, the U.S. fired three rockets at a pickup truck in which Mr. Awlaki and a Saudi national and suspected al Qaeda member were traveling outside the village of Jahwa, located some 20 miles away from the Shebwa provincial capital, said local residents and the Yemeni security official. Those missiles didn't hit their target.

Two Yemeni brothers, who were known by local residents for giving shelter to al Qaeda militants, rushed to the scene of the attack. Mr. Awlaki switched vehicles with them, leaving the two Yemenis in the pickup. A single drone then hit the pickup truck, killing the Yemenis inside.

Mr. Awlaki escaped in the other vehicle along with the Saudi. A Yemeni defense ministry official identified the two dead men as Musaid Mubarak Al-Daghari and his brother Abdullah.Unlike the bin Laden raid, which was carried out without Pakistani knowledge, the Yemeni government was a participant.

"The Yemeni government gave the U.S. authorities vital details of Awlaki's whereabouts in Shabwa days ago," said a senior Yemeni security official. The official said the Yemeni government had full knowledge of the attack ahead of the U.S. strike.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have been worried in recent weeks that the unrest in Yemen, and Mr. Saleh's increasingly weak position, had given a free hand to AQAP to plot fresh attacks against the West.

In the past several weeks, more than half of the U.S.-trained and funded Yemeni counter-terrorism forces assigned to Shebwa have left their posts. Many have been ordered to redploy in the capital, where Mr. Saleh has been besieged by thousands of protesters and army units which have defected from his command.

The timing of the Awlaki attack appears to be a calculated move by the Yemeni president to prove his counter-terrorism credentials to international allies like America and Saudi Arabia, which have been involved in intense diplomatic negotiations to get him to step down from office.

Mr. Awlaki has been on the run from Yemeni authorities since the failed Christmas 2009 underwear bomber attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane. He was living under the protection of his extended tribe and regional intelligence officials have criticized what they have seen as a lack of resolve by Yemeni security officials to pursue Mr. Awlaki.

The Yemeni security official said Friday that his government believed that Awlaki had been hiding in Abdan village for approximately two weeks. The official said that the Yemeni government shared this intelligence with their U.S. counterparts on Wednesday.

U.S. officials say finding Mr. Awlaki and other senior AQAP leaders has proven difficult. The U.S. lacks a robust intelligence network on the ground and the U.S.-born cleric has ditched electronic communications in favor of hard-to-track couriers to relay messages, officials said.

The U.S. campaign in Yemen has been led by the U.S. military's Central Command, but the CIA has been providing intelligence and other support.

Mr. Awlaki came to prominence in 2009 due to his role as Internet-based spiritual guide aiding the radicalization of a new generation of Islamist extremists.

He isn't the head of AQAP, but U.S. officials say Mr. Awlaki has assumed an operational leadership role in the terror group. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood Texas, corresponded with Mr. Awlaki before his attack.

The U.S. added Mr. Awlaki to the CIA's target list after AQAP's failed attempt a month later to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger airliner.

Part of Mr. Awlaki's appeal, say U.S. officials and terrorism experts, is his ability to act as a bridge between the mainly Arab leaders of al Qaeda and willing potential jihadists in the West.

Born in New Mexico, he preached at a mosque in Northern Virginia until 2002, when he left the U.S. to spend time building a following in the U.K., before returning to Yemen in 2004.

Yemen authorities, at the behest of the U.S. arrested him, but then released him in December 2007 saying they did not have enough evidence to hold him.

—Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

Write to Margaret Coker at

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