SANAA, Yemen — The death of U.S.-born Muslim preacher Anwar al Awlaki in a barrage of missiles fired by U.S. drones over Yemen on Friday dealt a sharp blow to Al Qaida's recruiting efforts, but it's likely to do little to crimp the group's ability to carry out attacks.
President Barack Obama, who authorized the killing of the American-born Awlaki last year, hailed his death as "another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaida and its affiliates.
"This is further proof that al Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world," Obama said, labeling Awlaki a "leader of external operations" for al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which he called the terrorist group's "most active operational affiliate."
Awlaki's ability to advocate violent jihad in plain English and his use of the Internet and social media such as Facebook and YouTube to disseminate his sermons made him an exceptional recruiter for violent jihad, especially among young, English-speaking Muslims.
"There are a range of (radical Islamists) trying to preach on the Internet, but few people were able to generate the following that he did," said Seth Jones, an expert with the RAND Corp., a policy institute, who's writing a history of al Qaida. He called Awlaki "extremely effective as a propagandist."
Others noted, however, that Awlaki wasn't among the top military commanders of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and that the group's top leader, Nasir al Wihayshi, a former aide to the late Osama bin Laden, its military commander, Qasim al Raymi, and its chief bomb-maker, Abdullah al Asiri, remain alive.
"In terms of the operations of AQAP, this will not have a debilitating affect; there are plenty of other AQAP figures that present a much greater threat," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton University Yemen analyst.
Word of Awlaki's death received little attention in Yemen, where he wasn't well-known. The country is enmeshed in a months-long political crisis over the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Egypt, where bin Laden's death in May sparked marches on the U.S. Embassy by Muslim fundamentalists, there was no reaction to Awlaki's killing.
Some congressional Republicans congratulated Obama on the killing. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Awlaki's death a "serious blow to radical Islam and long-overdue justice." Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the killing "is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community."
But Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas questioned the propriety of the death, warning that Americans shouldn't take lightly the execution of a U.S. citizen who hadn't been convicted of a crime. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which had challenged in federal court Obama's right to target Awlaki, called his death an assassination and the "latest of many affronts to domestic and international law."
Awlaki was killed as he was traveling between northern provinces. A senior administration official in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, described the operation that took out Awlaki as a CIA-led drone attack, but Yemeni government officials described American involvement as "joint intelligence cooperation."
A second American, Samir Khan, the editor of the English-language Al Qaida magazine Inspire, also died in the attack. Khan, who was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in New York, moved to North Carolina with his family in 2004. He was known for a militant blog while he was a student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte.
At a change-of-command ceremony Friday marking the retirement of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Obama said Awlaki "took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans," including the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.
Awlaki also was linked to the November 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in which 13 people died; the accused shooter, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, had exchanged 18 emails with Awlaki.
White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly refused Friday to provide details of the operation, including any legal justification for Awlaki's killing, a marked contrast to the briefing officials provided after the death of Osama bin Laden.
"It is an important fact that this terrorist, who had plotted in the past and was actively plotting to attack Americans and American interests, is dead," Carney said. "But I'm not going to, from any angle, discuss the circumstances of his death."
Born in New Mexico in 1971 while his father was completing his university studies, Awlaki and his family later returned to Yemen, where he remained until 1991, when he returned to the United States to attend Colorado State University. He then enrolled in graduate programs at San Diego State University and George Washington University in Washington.
Awlaki came to the attention of most Americans after the Fort Hood shootings, but his links to terrorism predated those shootings by many years.
U.S. officials have long been suspicious of his ties to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He knew three of the hijackers who helped fly passenger planes into the World Trade Center through mosques where he preached in San Diego and Falls Church, Va. Accused Fort Hood shooter Hasan also attended the Falls Church mosque when Awlaki preached there.
"He's a 9/11 loose end," Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks, once told McClatchy. Zelikow added that one of his frustrations with the 9/11 investigation was its inability to determine what Awlaki's role had been.
Awlaki left the United States in 2002 and moved to Great Britain, where he gained a large following. The main themes of his sermons included accusing the West of waging war to destroy Islam and extolling the virtues of dying as a martyr.
"Our culture of martyrdom needs to be revived because the enemy of Allah fears nothing more than our love of death," he wrote in a Feb. 5, 2009, online sermon titled "Forty Four Ways to Support Jihad."
His ability to inspire earned him the sobriquet of "the bin Laden of the Internet."
"Intelligence services have found Awlaki's writings on all the terrorist suspects arrested since 2008," said Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and an expert on Awlaki.
In addition to the Fort Hood shootings, Awlaki has been linked to a long list of plots.
One of his followers, Rajib Karim, a Bangladeshi computer specialist employed by British Airways, was convicted by a British court in February of conspiring via email with Awlaki to blow up a U.S.-bound aircraft. In 2010, a British woman allegedly radicalized by Awlaki's sermons was convicted of stabbing and wounding her local member of Parliament.
Awlaki also exchanged emails with some of the five men who were convicted in December 2008 of planning to attack the Army base at Fort Dix, N.J.
He allegedly played a more direct role in the failed Christmas Day 2009 attempt by a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to destroy a U.S. airliner over Detroit using a bomb hidden in his underwear. The plot failed when the bomb failed to detonate.
"I have looked through the court records ... and Awlaki seems to be deeply involved in the operational side of the plot," said Jones, the RAND expert. "Abdulmutallab went to visit him in Yemen in 2009 and ultimately found him and actually spent a chunk of time with him. He helped him to get training, connected him to the bomb-maker and gave strategic operational guidance."
That guidance included advising Abdulmutallab to cover his tracks by traveling to the United States through multiple cities in Africa and to wait to detonate the device over the U.S. mainland, Jones said.
U.S. officials also accused Awlaki of masterminding a failed plot last October to ship bombs disguised as toner cartridges to the U.S. and Britain, and they said he inspired an unsuccessful attempt by a Pakistani-American to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May 2010.
Now, with Awlaki gone, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains dangerous, but it may not remain as focused on the United States.
Awlaki's death "means their most competent operator that focused on the United States is no more," Jones said. "More than anything else, he skewed AQAP's focus on the U.S. and he was unprecedented in his ability to push out the message through social media. I don't see anybody on the AQAP front able to command the kind of audience that Awlaki had. But they remain a pretty dangerous organization."
(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Baghdad and McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo contributed to this report. Landay and Clark reported from Washington.)
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