SANA, Yemen — In a significant and dramatic strike in the campaign against Al Qaeda, the Defense Ministry here said American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in the group’s outpost in Yemen, was killed on Friday morning.
In Washington a senior Obama administration official confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was dead. But the circumstances surrounding the killing remained unclear.
It was not immediately known whether Yemeni forces carried out the attack or if American intelligence forces, which have been pursuing Mr. Awlaki for months, were involved in the operation.
A Defense Ministry statement said that a number of Mr. Awlaki’s bodyguards also were killed.
A high-ranking Yemeni security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mr. Awlaki was killed while traveling between Marib and al-Jawf provinces in northern Yemen — areas known for having an Al Qaeda presence, where there is very little central government control. The official did not say how he was killed.
Mr. Awlaki’s name has been associated with many plots in the United States and elsewhere after individuals planning violence were drawn to his engaging lectures broadcast over the Internet.
Those individuals included Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas in which 13 people were killed; the young men who planned to attack Fort Dix, N.J.; and a 21-year-old British student who told the police she stabbed a member of Parliament after watching 100 hours of Awlaki videos.
Mr. Awlaki’s death could well be used by beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh to reinforce his refusal to leave office in face of months of protests against his 30-year rule, arguing in part that he is a critical American ally in the war against Al Qaeda.
Earlier this year, the American military renewed its campaign of airstrikes in Yemen, using drone aircraft and fighter jets to attack Qaeda militants. One of the attacks was aimed at Mr. Awlaki, one of the most prominent members of the affiliate group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. Awlaki’s death seemed likely to be welcomed in the United States, where Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in July that two of his top goals were to remove Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s new leader after the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, and Mr. Awlaki.
Word of the killing came after months of sustained American efforts to seriously weaken the terrorist group.
In August an American official said a drone strike killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who in the last year had taken over as Al Qaeda’s top operational planner after Bin Laden was killed.
In July, Mr. Panetta said during a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda” and that the American focus had narrowed to capturing or killing 10 to 20 crucial leaders of the terrorist group in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
A month earlier, an American official said the Central Intelligence Agency was building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for strikes in Yemen using armed drones.
The construction of the base was seen at the time a sign that the Obama administration was planning an extended war in Yemen against an affiliate of Al Qaeda, called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has repeatedly tried to carry out terrorist plots against the United States.
The American official would not disclose the country where the C.I.A. base was being built, but the official said that it would most likely be completed by the end of the year.
Last year, the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen sought to install Mr. Awlaki as the leader of the group in Yemen, which apparently thought Mr. Awlaki’s knowledge of the United States and his status as an Internet celebrity might help the group’s operations and fund-raising efforts.
Mr. Awlaki was accused of having connections to the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former engineering student at University College London, who is awaiting trial in the United States for his attempt to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it landed in Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. The bomb did not explode.
Mr. Awlaki has been linked to numerous plots against the United States, including the botched underwear bombing. He has taken to the Internet with stirring battle cries directed at young American Muslims. “Many of your scholars,” Mr. Awlaki warned last year, are “standing between you and your duty of jihad.”
Major Hasan, the American Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki beforehand. Mr. Awlaki’s lectures and sermons have been linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May, 2010, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.
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