SANAA, Yemen — The heavy black beard spoke of Islamic piety, the fashionable wire-rim glasses of Western style.
Anwar al-Awlaki, American-born, a gifted Muslim preacher and savvy Internet operator, became a powerful al Qaeda tool for recruiting in the West, its English-speaking voice spreading a terrorist credo via a blog, social media posts and email exchanges.
Al-Awlaki’s East-West cross-appeal was seen as a potential model for the next generation of al Qaeda leaders. But his rise to prominence also drew the attention of the CIA, and landed him on its capture-or-kill list, the first American so targeted.
On Friday, al-Awlaki was killed in the mountains of Yemen in what local officials said they believed was an American airstrike. The officials said pilotless drones had been seen circling the area in recent days.
According to American officials, the 40-year-old al-Awlaki had over the years moved from being an influential mouthpiece for al Qaeda’s ideology of holy war against the United States to become an operational figure, helping recruit militants for al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, seen as the most dangerous direct threat to America.
Al-Awlaki was suspected of contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian accused in the failed Christmas Day 2009 attempt to bomb an airliner heading for Detroit using explosives sewn into his pants. Yemeni officials said they believed al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda leaders met with Abdulmutallab in a mountain hideout in Yemen to help plan the attack.
He was further believed to have had a hand in mail bombs addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, packages intercepted in Dubai and Europe in October 2010.
Earlier in 2010, al-Awlaki urged American Muslims to mount attacks in the U.S., telling then in a sermon, “How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?”
“Jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim,” he proclaimed.
Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, exchanged up to 20 emails with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, alleged killer of 13 people in the Nov. 5, 2009, rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki’s Internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.
Al-Awlaki has said he didn’t tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, but he later praised Hasan as a “hero” on his Web site for killing American soldiers who would be heading for Afghanistan or Iraq to fight Muslims.
In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was “inspired” by al-Awlaki after making contact over the Internet.
In an article published in January in an English-language al Qaeda newsletter called Inspire, al-Awlaki called for targeting the “wealth of disbelievers” in non-Muslim countries — including government-owned properties, banks and global corporations.
“In the case of the United States, both the government and private citizens should be targeted. America and Americans are the Imams of kufr (leaders of disbelief) in this day and age,” he wrote.
Al-Awlaki had been in the U.S. crosshairs since his killing was approved by President Barack Obama in April 2010. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations where al-Awlaki was suspected to be, but he wasn’t harmed. The order against an American citizen raised alarm bells among civil liberties groups.