The death of Anwar al-Aulaqi comes after several attempts to kill the Yemeni American whose fluent English, persuasive sermons and wide online following made him a key figure in the group known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In May, a drone strike killed two members of the group but missed Aulaqi himself. In an issue of the group’s English-language magazine, Inspire, released in July, a story said, “The U.S. sent nearly a dozen missile strikes from a few unmanned drones upon Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki... But by the grace of Allah, they all missed Shaykh Anwar and he left the area without a scratch.”
Pictured in traditional Yemeni dress, with a bushy beard and holding a gun, Aulaqi is quoted laughing at the attempt: “the Shaykh jokingly said, ‘It looks as if someone was a bit angry with us this evening.’”
Watch an interview Aulaqi gave to The Post in 2001:
The campaign to kill Aulaqi, who grew up in America and once led the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., had moved near the top of the list of U.S. counterterrorism priorities. Rep Jane Harman (D-Calif.), of the House subcommittee on homeland security, last year called him “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us.”
Prominent scholars of jihad, including the Norwegian expert Thomas Hegghammer, had made the case that Aulaqi was most likely a member of AQAP’s foreign operations unit, making him a legitimate target for American operations in Yemen. But a paper published this week at the Council of Foreign Relations by Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton, argued that the increase in air and drone strikes in Yemen was primarily a “delaying tactic designed to keep AQAP off balance until the Yemeni military can act.” Johnsen suggested that the strikes could make the group stronger by fueling anti-American feeling and called instead for a drive to turn public opinion against the group.
In an interview Friday, Johnsen said that many in Yemen who have risen up as part of a protest movement against President Ali Abdullah Saleh would be listening carefully to the Obama administration’s statements on the killing. The United States has called for Saleh to step down but maintained close links with his administration, including members of his family, on counterterrorism operations.
“It will be interesting to see if the U.S. is going to allow Saleh a pass and portray himself as an ally against al-Qaeda,” Johnsen said. “There is concern that something like this will ease up Western pressure on him.”
According to a statement by Yemeni officials, the attack took place in northern Yemen, in Jawf province, hundreds of miles from the southern districts of Shabwa and Abyan where most al-Qaeda activity has taken place. Johnsen said that the group’s reach into the country could be farther than was previously known, and that American operations against it were more widely dispersed.
There are also questions about whether it is legal to target a U.S. citizen. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit last year, saying it was illegal to target an American citizen without trial. “The government is targeting an American citizen for death without any legal process whatsoever, while at the same time impeding lawyers from challenging that death sentence and the government’s sweeping claim of authority to issue it,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said last year.
More from the Washington Post on Aulaqi:
Foreign: A timeline of Aulaqi’s life
Photos: Most wanted al-Qaeda terrorist
BlogPost: What he preached