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Updated: September 30, 2011 23:43 IST

Al-Qaeda cleric ‘killed' in Yemen

Atul Aneja
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This October 2008 photo shows Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Yemen's Defence Ministry said in a statement on Friday that the U.S.-born al-Qaeda cleric has been killed.
AP This October 2008 photo shows Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Yemen's Defence Ministry said in a statement on Friday that the U.S.-born al-Qaeda cleric has been killed.

An American aerial attack on Friday killed Anwar Al Awlaki, an influential tech-savvy leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, known for his wide following in the West, said Yemeni and U.S. officials.

If confirmed, the killing, apparently resulting from an air delivered hellfire missile attack, apart from rendering a blow to terrorism, is likely to echo powerfully in Yemen's turbulent domestic politics. The Associated Press quoted a U.S. counterterrorism official as saying it is likely that Mr. Awlaki was killed during a U.S. drone and jet attack on his convoy. The Obama administration has in recent months stepped up drone attacks on Al-Qaeda targets in Yemen and Somalia. The cleric's death comes five months after the killing in Pakistan of al-Qaeda icon, Osama bin Laden.

Fluent in English, the U.S.-born cleric also had a wide internet following, which acquired prominence during the investigation on the killing of 13 people at the U.S. military facility at Fort Hood, Texas. Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist, the prime accused in the carnage, was, apparently, in regular e-mail contact with Mr. Awlaki, who held a dual American and Yemeni nationality. The cleric was also implicated in the failed Christmas bombing of a passenger airliner over Detroit in 2009, and an unsuccessful car bombing attempt in New York's Times Square. Two 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Midhar, attended his sermons when Mr. Awlaki was in the 1990s, the Imam of a San Diego mosque.

Analysts say Mr. Awlaki's death could reinforce Washington's support for Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's embattled President for 33 years, who is the target of a popular pro-democracy revolt in his country. The New York Times is reporting that U.S. President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said in early September recent cooperation with Yemen on counterterrorism, controlled by Mr. Saleh's family, was better than ever before. After spending four months in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Saleh returned to Yemen, only days before Friday's strike.

However, there is a counterview which says the killing was likely to weaken Mr. Saleh in the long-run. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ameen al Himyari, a Yemen analyst and professor at Qatar University said: “The regime is going to lose one of its scarecrows. Now if al-Qaeda is weakened in Yemen, what's he [Saleh] going to say for the West? Support me for what?”

Earlier on Friday, a statement by Yemen's Defence Ministry said “Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions.”

Without revealing details, a senior U.S. official confirmed Mr. Awlaki's death. The Yemen embassy in Washington said Mr. Awlaki had been killed 8 km from the town of Khashef in Jawf province, about 140 km east of Sana'a, at about 9:55 a.m. local time.

Claims of Mr. Awlaki's killing have set alight Yemen's social media forums, which are dominated by young pro-democracy activists. Says well known Yemeni activist Abdul Kader Alguneid on his Twitter account: “[President] Saleh presented the head of Anwar Awlaki, on a platter of silver to [John] Brennan, [President] Obama… Question is what is he expecting in return?” Yemen Updates, run by an advocacy group for a “new Yemen,” feared that Mr. Awlaki's death could distract the media covering Yemen's pro-democracy uprising. “Reporters of local and international media at Change Square [in Yemen's capital Sana'a] are shifting focus to the killing of Anwar Awlaki of the AQAP,” it said.

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