Reporting from Washington and Cairo — A two-year hunt for an American-born Muslim cleric accused of inspiring and plotting terrorist attacks on Americans, including the deadly shooting at an army base in Texas, ended when he was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a drone aircraft operated by the CIA. over northern Yemen.
The lethal strike that killed Anwar Awlaki was backed by U.S. special operations forces and Yemeni authorities, and marked the first known case in which the Obama administration tracked down and killed a U.S. citizen. The raid also killed a second American, Samir Khan, who had produced virulent, English-language online propaganda for Al Qaeda.
Officials said Yemeni authorities had interrogated an Al Qaeda operative in their custody and that he had disclosed Awlaki's hide-out, a house in the town of Khashef in Yemen's northern Jawf province. The house was placed under surveillance, which lasted for several weeks.
When a convoy drove away from the hide-out Friday morning, a pair of Predator drones flying overhead tracked its movement. At least one missile was fired at about 10 a.m., and local reports said the bodies were so mangled that they were buried in sandbags.
U.S. officials said the surveillance and drone attack was code-named Operation Troy. A U.S. Navy amphibious landing ship steamed offshore, the officials said, with Harrier jets prepared to attack the convoy if the Predators failed. The jets were not used.
Although Awlaki was a mid-level figure in Al Qaeda, he cast a potent shadow in U.S. counter-terrorism circles because he spoke fluent English and was effective at reaching disaffected Muslims in the United States and elsewhere via speeches and sermons on the Internet.
His death thus marks not only an escalation of Obama administration efforts to kill leaders of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, but another significant intelligence coup after the CIA-led raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 in Pakistan.
Unlike after that raid, U.S. officials were not eager to provide details of the operation against Awlaki, possibly fearing that disclosures about U.S. operations in Yemen could jeopardize future ones.
Awlaki, who was known for his fiery sermons on the Internet and on YouTube urging Muslims to attack the United States, was put on a CIA list of militants to be killed or captured after an Obama administration review last year concluded that he played an operational role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group has allegedly carried out numerous terrorist plots against U.S. targets.
Friday's drone strike also killed Khan, who grew up in New York and ran a pro-Al Qaeda web site in Charlotte, N.C., before he moved to Yemen several years ago. Politicians from both parties in Washington applauded the death of the two influential Al Qaeda figures. But the strike also intensified a debate about whether, by killing American citizens without due process or judicial review, the U.S. government had crossed into dangerous legal territory with no clear limits.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials said they did not know in advance that Khan was riding in the convoy with Awlaki. They identified him only after U.S. and Yemeni personnel who rushed to the scene recovered fingerprints from the victims' remains.
"Samir Khan was a bonus. It was a twofer," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security. "It's a pretty good hit."
Two unidentified passengers in the vehicles were also killed, officials said.
In remarks at Fort Myer in Virginia, President Obama stressed the direct role that Awlaki allegedly played in planning and directing terror plots against Americans.
Obama called Awlaki "the leader of external operations" for the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and said he "directed" both the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and a plan to detonate explosives hidden in printer cartridges aboard U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
U.S. forces fired a missile at a convoy in which Awlaki was believed to be a passenger in May, but he escaped.
The only other U.S. citizen known to have been killed by the CIA in a targeted strike was Ahmed Hijazi, who was in a car destroyed in a Predator strike in Yemen in 2002. But the target was a different passenger, and the CIA did not learn Hijazi was killed until afterward.
Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, a liberal public interest law firm, challenged the legality of Awlaki's killing.
"This is an extrajudicial killing, said Kebriaei. Outside a war zone, "the U.S. cannot kill an individual unless that person presents an imminent threat of deadly harm, and lethal force is the last result. That is the standard."