Anwar al-Awlaki, the extremist Islamic cleric whose American upbringing helped make him al Qaeda's most visible propagandist and recruiter and its most dangerous operational commander, has been killed in Yemen, President Obama said Friday.
"The death of al-Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaeda's most active operational affiliate," Mr. Obama said at the swearing-in of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a ceremony at Fort Myer, Va.
The president said the airstrike that killed al-Awlaki shows al Qaeda agents "will find no safe haven anywhere in the world."
Mr. Obama carefully avoided saying who had carried out the strike, but sought to give at least part of the credit to the Yemenis.
"This success is a tribute to our intelligence community, and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces who have worked closely with the United States," Mr. Obama said. "He has met his demise because the government and the people of Yemen have joined the international community in a common effort against al Qaeda."
The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike by the U.S. military's secretive global counterterrorism team, the Joint Special Operations Command.
"For the past several years, al-Awlaki has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King, New York Republican, said in a statement.
The killing of New Mexico-born al-Awlaki is "a tremendous tribute to President Obama," said the congressman.
The Obama administration had placed al-Awlaki, 40, on a "kill or capture" list because of his role in terrorist plots against the United States hatched by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The move gave rise to controversy because al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, and human rights advocates argued it is unconstitutional for the U.S. government to target citizens for death without due process. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican and prominent libertarian running for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, also raised questions about the legality of the operation targeting an American citizen.
Last year al-Awlaki's father went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the U.S. government from targeting his son.
A federal judge in Washington, DC, ruled that Mr. Awlaki's family did not have standing to bring such a case, and that in any case the issue was not a matter for the courts to decide.
"There are circumstances in which the executive's unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is 'constitutionally committed to the political branches' and judicially unreviewable. ... This case squarely presents such a circumstance," wrote Judge John Bates in his opinion.
Nonetheless, some human rights advocates, longtime critics of the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda, immediately questioned the legality of the killing.
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.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus recently identified AQAP as the al Qaeda arm most threatening to the United States, and Mr. Venzke cautioned that the group remains dangerous.
Its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, "remains in charge," Mr. Venzke said, noting that al-Wuhayshi is responsible for "expanding the group's focus to conduct attacks on U.S. soil."
"Further attempts to conduct attacks in the United States [by AQAP] are expected," Mr. Venzke said.
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