Sana, Yemen – A missile fired from an American drone aircraft in Yemen on Friday killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, according to an official in Washington.
Many of the details of the strike were unclear, but the official said that the drone fired a Hellfire missile and killed Mr. Awlaki, whom the United States had been hunting in Yemen for more than two years.
Yemen’s Defense Ministry confirmed Mr. Awlaki’s death, and both Yemeni and American officials hailed the strike as a significant success in the campaign to weaken Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group American officials believe to be the most dangerous Qaeda affiliate.
The Obama administration has escalated military and intelligence operations in Yemen, and the White House decision to make Mr. Awlaki a top priority to be hunted down and killed was controversial, given his American citizenship.
Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, Mr. Awlaki, 40, began preaching in mosques while a college student in the United States. During that time, as a preacher in San Diego, he met two of the Sept. 11, 2001 attackers. He returned to Yemen in 2004 and his English-language sermons became ever more stridently anti-American.
His Internet lectures and sermons were linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki before the shootings. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.
A Defense Ministry statement said that a number of Mr. Awlaki’s bodyguards were also killed.
A high-ranking Yemeni security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mr. Awlaki was killed while traveling between Marib and al-Jawf provinces in northern Yemen — areas known for having a Qaeda presence and where there is very little central government control.
A senior administration official in Washington said the killing of Mr. Awlaki was important because he had become Al Qaeda’s greatest English-language propagandist and one of its top operational planners.
“First and foremost, we’ve been looking at his important operational role,” the official said. “To the extent he’s no longer playing that role it’s all to the good.”
President Obama’s top national security and counterterrorism officials held a video teleconference at 6:30 a.m. Washington time to discuss details of Mr. Awlaki’s death as well as its impact on the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen and the group’s broader organization.
Mr. Awlaki’s name has been associated with many plots in the United States and elsewhere after individuals planning violence were drawn to his engaging lectures broadcast over the Internet.
Those individuals included Major Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the shootings at Fort Hood in which 13 people were killed; the young men who planned to attack Fort Dix, N.J.; and a 21-year-old British student who told the police she stabbed a member of Parliament after watching 100 hours of Awlaki videos.
But his death could also play into the tangled politics of Yemen, where beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been resisting months of protests against his 30-year rule, arguing in part that he is a critical American ally in the war against Al Qaeda.
In early September, the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said recent cooperation with Yemen was better than it has ever been despite the prolonged absence of Mr. Saleh, who returned recently after four months in Saudi Arabia recovering from wounds he suffered in a bomb attack on his presidential palace.
President Saleh’s family controls the armed forces responsible for counterterrorism, and the killing of Mr. Awlaki seemed likely to be used to further the argument that the current government is the best ally for the United States when it comes to combating Mr. Awlaki’s affiliate group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Awlaki may not matter much to Yemenis, but his presence in Yemen has influenced U.S. counter terrorism policy, which in turn has influenced transition politics,” said Ginny Hill, the head of the Yemen Forum at Chatham House in London.
A senior American military official in Washington said Mr. Awlaki’s death will send an important message to the surviving leaders and foot soldiers in Al Qaeda, both in Yemen and elsewhere. “It’s critically important,” the senior official said. “It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them. Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. It’s hard for them to attack when they’re trying to protect their own back side.”
“You take out someone like this, it sends a message,” the military official continued. “Now they have to go into a succession effort that will cause a movement of people, of messages, which makes them more vulnerable. Bottom line, they’ve taken a severe impact.”
But some Islamist figures said Mr. Awlaki’s status could be elevated to that of a martyr. Anjem Choudhury, an outspoken Islamic scholar in London, said: “The death of Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki will merely motivate the Muslim youth to struggle harder against the enemies of Islam and Muslims.” He added: “I would say his death has made him more popular.”
Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a telephone interview: “In many ways, Awlaki was, operationally, more important than Bin Laden.”
“Clearly, he was one of the most motivated to attack the United States.”
Mr. King warned that the United States would need to guard against retaliatory attacks from Al Qaeda’s arm in Yemen, but other senior American military and counterterrorism officials said that, unless a plot was already well under way, the Qaeda affiliate is likely to be in too much disarray right now to launch an immediate counterstrike.
Earlier this year, the American military renewed its campaign of airstrikes in Yemen, using drone aircraft and fighter jets to attack Qaeda militants. One of the attacks was aimed at Mr. Awlaki. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in July that two of his top goals were to remove Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s new leader after the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, and Mr. Awlaki.
Word of the killing came after months of sustained American efforts to seriously weaken the terrorist group.
In August an American official said a drone strike killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who in the last year had taken over as Al Qaeda’s top operational planner after Bin Laden was killed.
In July, Mr. Panetta said during a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda” and that the American focus had narrowed to capturing or killing 10 to 20 crucial leaders of the terrorist group in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
A month earlier, an American official said the Central Intelligence Agency was building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for strikes in Yemen using armed drones.
The construction of the base was seen at the time a sign that the Obama administration was planning an extended war in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has repeatedly tried to carry out terrorist plots against the United States.
The American official would not disclose the country where the C.I.A. base was being built, but the official said that it would most likely be completed by the end of the year.
Last year, the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen sought to install Mr. Awlaki as the leader of the group, which apparently thought Mr. Awlaki’s knowledge of the United States and his status as an Internet celebrity might help the group’s operations and fund-raising efforts.
Mr. Awlaki, who came from a prestigious Yemeni family, was accused of having connections to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian former engineering student at University College London, who is awaiting trial in the United States for his attempt to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it landed in Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. The bomb did not explode.
Mr. Awlaki has been linked to numerous plots against the United States, including the botched underwear bombing.
He has taken to the Internet with stirring battle cries directed at young American Muslims. “Many of your scholars,” Mr. Awlaki warned last year, are “standing between you and your duty of jihad.”
In Yemen, there was a muted reaction to the news of the death of Mr. Awlaki, who derived his importance from his ability to reach out to the Western, English-speaking world but was of little consequence to the Yemeni population.
Many saw the killing as confirmation of their belief that the United States becomes involved in Yemen only for counterterrorism. Mr. Awlaki’s death comes at a time when Yemeni protesters, who have been demonstrating against their government for eight months, are angry at the United States for not doing more to push President Saleh out of office.
Further, if it is confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was killed by a American drone strike, it will likely further harm the image of the United States among average Yemenis, who are staunchly against outside military intervention in their country.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 30, 2011
An earlier version of this article said that Yemeni forces had carried out the attack. The circumstances of the operation remain unclear.