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International law has two standards that must be met for deadly force to be used, said Maria LaHood, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. The target “must be an imminent threat and [the operation] must be a last resort.”

“The U.S. government has met neither test,” she argued.

U.S. officials declined to comment on the legality of the killing, but emphasized what they said was al-Awlaki’s direct role in terror plots aiming to kill Americans.

Although he rose to prominence as al Qaeda’s most visible English-speaking voice and, through blogs and video messages, the terror group’s principal Web recruiter, “he long ago stopped being just a propagandist,” a U.S. official said.

Rather, the official said, U.S. intelligence believed him to to be AQAP’s “external operations commander, responsible for all their operations outside of Yemen.”

“All of the plots that got close to striking America [in the past several years] involved him in some way, whether directly or through his propaganda,” the official said.

U.S. intelligence believes al-Awlaki had a direct role in the failed attempt by the so-called “underwear bomber” to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and the failed plot to airmail bombs hidden in printer cartridges to the United States in October of 2010.

He was in email contact with Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, who is accused of the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Faisal Shazad, the Pakistani-American who tried to car bomb Times Square in May 2010, cited al-Awlaki as an inspiration.

“He was the kind of person who, because of his American upbringing and his native English language skills, had an ability to reach and inspire Americans,” said the official.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican , called the killing “another great step forward in breaking the back of al Qaeda.”

Also killed with al-Awlaki, according to one U.S. official, was fellow propagandist and American AQAP member Samir Khan.

The official told The Washington Times a car was targeted in the airstrike, killing four people, but the identities of the other two people in the car were unknown.

Mr. Khan, a Pakistani-American from South Carolina, was the editor of Inspire, al Qaeda’s online English-language magazine.

The deaths of these two key figures will be “a significant blow” to AQAP, said Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, a private firm that tracks extremist messaging for clients, including U.S. agencies.

“It will especially impact the group’s ability to recruit, inspire and raise funds, as al-Awlaki’s influence and ability to connect to a broad demographic of potential supporters was unprecedented,” said Mr. Venzke.

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