JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. war on al-Qaida claimed another high-profile kill today, this time in Yemen. The target was an American imam who preached at mosques in the U.S. before taking up jihad overseas.
Ray Suarez has the story.
RAY SUAREZ: The announcement of Anwar al-Awlaki death made him the most prominent al-Qaida figure killed since Osama bin Laden back in May. Yemeni intelligence officials said he was located three weeks ago and tracked intensively on the ground and from the air.
Today, U.S. drone aircraft blasted Awlaki’s convoy with missiles near the town of Khashef in Jawf Province, about 90 miles east of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
President Obama had authorized Awlaki’s killing almost two years ago. He hailed today’s news at a ceremony for the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The death of Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates. Furthermore, the success is a tribute to our intelligence community and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces, who have worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.
RAY SUAREZ: The 40-year-old American-born cleric had become a major player in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s most active wing. But 10 years ago, as imam at a Washington-area mosque, Awlaki advocated restraint.
He appeared in a NewsHour report addressing worshipers just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI, Muslim cleric: Our position needs to be reiterated and needs to be very clear. The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians doesn’t justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington, D.C.
And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington, D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan. And that is the difference between right and wrong, evil and good that everybody’s claiming to talk about.
RAY SUAREZ: Awlaki later moved to Yemen, his family home, and it was there his tone radically changed, as seen in this undated jihadist video.
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI (through translator): Don’t consult with anybody in the killing of Americans. Fighting the devil doesn’t require consultation or prayer seeking divine guidance. They are the party of the devils. Fighting them is what is called for at this time. We have reached a point where it is either us or them. We are two opposites that will never come together. What they want can only be accomplished by our elimination. Therefore, this is a defining battle.
RAY SUAREZ: U.S. counter-terror officials said Awlaki used his knowledge of English and the U.S. to inspire violence, and he was linked to a series of operations against U.S. and Western targets.
The cleric had exchanged e-mails with Major Nidal Hasan before Hasan allegedly killed 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. U.S. officials also accused Awlaki of directing the plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. He acknowledged meeting with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused bomber, but denied any role in the failed attack.
And Faisal Shahzad said he was inspired by online contacts with the cleric. Shahzad has pleaded guilty to trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May of last year. Awlaki was also suspected of involvement last October, when printer cartridges laden with explosives were found on cargo planes in Dubai and Britain, but addressed to Chicago synagogues.
Still, he was never charged with any crime, and the decision making him the first American on the CIA’s kill-or-capture list drew fire from civil libertarians and others. In fact, a second American-born militant, Samir Khan, also died in today’s strike. He produced the al-Qaida Web magazine Inspire, focusing on ways to carry out attacks inside the U.S.
At the White House today, Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to answer questions on the legal standard for killing American citizens.