Reporting from Washington — A U.S. drone attack in Yemen was an attempt to kill Anwar Awlaki, an American-born militant suspected of involvement in multiple terrorist plots against the United States, but he eluded the missiles, a U.S. official said Friday.
The strike Thursday, less than a week after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, was the first U.S. drone strike in Yemen since 2002.
The timing suggests that Bin Laden's death may be prompting the U.S. to carry out operations that it might have passed up in the past, as well as edging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh toward allowing such strikes after resisting them for the last year.
The specific targeting also indicates U.S. intelligence is developing a sharper focus on high-priority terrorists, although American officials told news agencies that a trove of information seized from the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan did not have any influence on the Awlaki mission.
The U.S. official said multiple missiles were launched during the attack in the southern province of Shabwa and that two men were believed killed, but Awlaki managed to get away, apparently uninjured. Yemen's Defense Ministry confirmed Thursday's drone attack had killed two Al Qaeda militants, identifying them as brothers Musaid and Abdullah Mubarak Daghar, but it provided no other details.
Awlaki, 40, was born in New Mexico and educated in the U.S. He was once considered a peaceful cleric and was even invited to the U.S. Capitol after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to deliver a prayer for Muslim congressional staffers.
But Awlaki gradually became more radicalized, eventually fleeing to Yemen, where he has emerged as a key leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Bin Laden's group that has been involved in numerous attempts to attack U.S. targets in recent years.
The United States stepped up drone flights over Yemen last year in an effort to find Awlaki and the group's other top leaders. Drones were brought in as part of an effort to improve intelligence gathering on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after Saleh complained that previous U.S. operations using cruise missiles and airstrikes from manned jet fighters had killed the wrong people.
A U.S. counter-terrorism official said Friday that Saleh imposed tight restrictions on when drones would be allowed to launch strikes at suspected militants. But as Saleh has faced increasing pressure from internal opponents to give up power in recent months, his reluctance to consider drone strikes has eased, the counter-terrorism official said, apparently hoping that doing so would win him continued backing from the Obama administration.
Awlaki's name was added last year to a secret list of targets that the CIA is authorized to kill after the Obama administration concluded that the charismatic cleric, known for his fiery sermons circulated on militant websites denouncing the U.S., had taken on an operational role in attempted terrorist attacks.
He is believed to be the first U.S. citizen the CIA has been authorized to kill or capture since 2001. The only other U.S. citizen believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike was in Yemen in 2002, when a car was struck by a Hellfire missiles, killing five passengers, including Ahmed Hijazi, a suspected militant who had U.S. citizenship.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials say they have evidence that Awlaki helped recruit and prepare Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian suspected of attempting to bomb an U.S. airliner on Christmas Day on 2009, as well as several other plots. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also is believed to have been involved in a failed plot to place smuggled explosives on cargo planes bound for the United States in October.
Awlaki's calls for jihad against the U.S. are also thought to have inspired Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American who tried to detonate a truck bomb in New York's Times Square last May, and Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 29 in Ft. Hood, Texas, in 2009.
Previously, Awlaki was considered dangerous, but only as someone whose knowledge of American society and his radical interpretation of the Islam made him capable of inspiring others to carry out terrorist attacks. Before adding him to the CIA target list, a special government review of his activities was conducted, officials said, prompted by his status as a U.S. citizen.
The review concluded that Awlaki's operational role in Al Qaeda meant he could be legally considered an enemy combatant despite being a citizen. Awlaki's name was already on a separate targeting list used by the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, which also carries out capture-and-kill missions against suspected terrorists.
The drone strike Thursday that targeted Awlaki was a special operations mission, not a CIA strike, the official said.
Another U.S. official said Friday that the Obama administration had not made a decision to intensify the drone campaign in Yemen in the wake of its success against Bin Laden in Pakistan, but that decisions about whether to go ahead with risky operations are "constantly being re-evaluated, based on changing circumstances."