Obama: al-Awlaki’s death a “major blow” to al-Qaida in Yemen

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

The killing of Yemeni-American radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a U.S. drone strike Friday delivers a "major blow" to al-Qaida's dangerous Yemeni branch, President Barack Obama said Friday.

The American-born Al-Awlaki had been a leading English-language propagandist for the terrorist organization's Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate," Obama said at a Friday ceremony honoring Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The cleric's death "marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates.'

While AQAP "remains a dangerous, though weakened terrorist organization," the president said, he vowed relentlessness in continuing to target the organization. "Make no mistake: this is further proof that al-Qaida will find no safe haven anywhere in the world."

Obama recounted several terrorist plots targeting the United States that he said were linked to al-Awlaki. "He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009," Obama said. "He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010.  And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda."

Among the terrorist suspects who allegedly cited al-Awlaki as a key influence in their path to radicalization: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the wealthy, Nigerian-born London university student charged with attempting to blow up a Christmas Day 2009 flight to Detroit; Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 fellow soldiers in a 2009 attack on troops at Ft. Hood, Texas; and Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized Pakistani-American who last year attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square.

In addition, U.S. officials asserted some new details about al-Awlaki Friday that had not been previously widely known. Accused Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Hasan "attended al-Awlaqi's sermons in Virginia and corresponded with him through email," a senior administration official, requesting anonymity, said by email Friday following Obama's remarks.

The official also said that in January 2010, al-Awlaqi communicated with a British Airlines worker in the U.K., Rajib Karim, who was convicted in March 2011 on terrorism charges. Awlaki was working with Karim "to recruit operatives at Heathrow airport in London to advance attack plans," the official said.

Awlaki "sought to use WMD, specifically poisons including cyanide and ricin to attack Westerners," the official also said.

Obama also said al-Awlaki and AQAP were responsible for the deaths of many Yemenis.

Some civil liberties groups decried the targeted assassination of the American-born al-Awlaki without due process, and warned of a slippery slope.

"The targeted assassination program that started under President Bush and expanded under the Obama Administration essentially grants the executive the power to kill any U.S. citizen deemed a threat, without any judicial oversight, or any of the rights afforded by our Constitution," the Center for Constitutional Right's executive director Vince Warren said in a press release from the group Friday. "If we allow such gross overreaches of power to continue, we are setting the stage for increasing erosions of civil liberties and the rule of law."

ABC News reported Friday that another American was killed in the U.S. drone strike Friday: Samir Khan, 25, the Saudi-born, New York-raised publisher of al-Qaida's propaganda magazine, "Inspire."

Born in New Mexico in 1971 to Yemeni parents, al-Awlaki studied civil engineering in Colorado and did graduate work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where al-Awlaki also served in 2001 as a Muslim chaplin. He also served as imam at mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Virginia.

In November 2001, Awlaki, then serving as imam of the Falls Church, Virginia-based Dar Al-Hijra Islamic Center, was invited to conduct a chat with readers of the Washington Post, on the topic of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The 9/11 Commission report described al-Awlaki's close relationship with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, first in San Diego, and then in Virginia. After al-Awlaki came under law enforcement scrutiny in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he left the United States, first for London, and then for Yemen.

Intelligence officials told MSNBC Friday that al-Awlaki was perhaps not as pious as he seemed. "Intelligence officials also painted a picture of al-Awlaki contrary to his public persona, saying that he wasn't the most pious of individuals and was said to be dating a Croatian stripper," MSNBC reported.

The charge echoes one U.S. officials made after the May killing of Osama bin Laden, when officials told Reuters they had found a stash of pornography in the al-Qaida chief's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.