- Associated Press - Friday, September 30, 2011

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamic militant cleric who became a prominent figure in al Qaeda’s most active branch, using his fluent English and Internet savvy to draw recruits to carry out attacks in the United States, was killed Friday in the mountains of Yemen, American and Yemeni officials said.

The Yemeni government and Defense Ministry announced al-Awlaki’s death, but gave no details. A senior U.S. official said American intelligence supports the claim that he had been killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Yemeni security officials and local tribal leaders said the was killed in an airstrike on his convoy that they believed was carried out by the Americans. They said pilotless drones had been seen over the area in previous days.

Al-Awlaki would be the most prominent al Qaeda figure to be killed since Osama bin Laden’s death in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in May. In July, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Yemeni-American was a priority target alongside Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s successor as the terror network’s leader.

The 40-year-old al-Awlaki had been in the U.S. crosshairs since his killing was approved by President Barack Obama in April 2010 — making him the first American placed on the CIA “kill or capture” list. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being, but he wasn’t harmed.

** FILE ** In this file image taken from video and released by SITE Intelligence Group on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites. Yemen's Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, the U.S.-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed. The ministry provided no details in the statement Friday on one of its websites. (AP Photo/SITE Intelligence Group)
** FILE ** In this file image taken from video and released ... more >

Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, was believed to be key in turning al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen into what American officials have called the most significant and immediate threat to the Untied States. The branch, led by a Yemeni militant named Nasser al-Wahishi, plotted several failed attacks on U.S. soil — the botched Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up an American airliner heading to Detroit and a foiled 2010 attempt to main explosives to Chicago.

Known as an eloquent preacher who spread English-language sermons on the internet calling for “holy war” against the United States, al-Awlaki’s role was to inspire and — it is believed — even directly recruit militants to carry out attacks.

He was not believed to be a key operational leader, but as a spokesman. His English skills gave him reach among second and third generation Muslims who may not speak Arabic.

Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen in 2009. They say the believe al-Awlaki met with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other al Qaeda leaders, in al Qaeda strongholds in the country in the weeks before the failed bombing.

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.

Al-Awlaki also 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. The cleric similarly said Abdulmutallab was his “student” but said he never told him to carry out the airline attack.

In a statement, the Yemeni government said al-Awlaki was “targeted and killed” 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the town of Khashef in the Province of al-Jawf. The town is located 87 miles (140 kilometers) east of the capital Sanaa.

The statement says the operation was launched on Friday around 9:55 a.m. It gave no other details.

The Yemeni Defense Ministry also reported the death, without elaborating, in a mobile phone SMS message.

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