U.S. officials have given Anwar al-Aulaqi a newly elevated designation on the day of his death by drone strike, describing him as “chief of external operations” for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
The new title, cited by officials at the White House and the CIA, reflects Aulaqi’s evolution from Muslim cleric to alleged terrorist plotter, as well as a desire by American officials to persuade the public that the extraordinary killing of a U.S. citizen overseas was warranted.
U.S. officials also disclosed what they said were new details about Aulaqi’s operational role, saying that he personally had instructed a would-be suicide bomber who boarded a Detroit-bound plane in 2009 to detonate his device over American airspace to maximize casualties.
(View gallery: The failed plane bombing in Detroit.)
When he first surfaced on U.S. counterterrorism radar, Aulaqi was mainly seen as a militant cleric, a native of New Mexico who was acquiring a disturbingly large audience for his English-language sermons online.
More recently, he was portrayed as an increasingly operational figure for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based off-shoot is known.
But on Friday, U.S. officials including National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described Aulaqi as “chief of external operations.”
A U.S. intelligence official said that CIA analysts and others had been referring to Aulaqi by that designation for some time, saying that he was “intimately involved in the attacks that have come closest to hitting the United States.”
In December 2009, Aulaqi “specifically instructed” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to wait until his Christmas Day flight had crossed into U.S. airspace before detonating the bomb he had hidden in his underwear, an Obama administration official said. Abdulmutallab was subdued before he could ignite the explosive.
Aulaqi also had “a direct role in supervising” AQAP’s attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in the United States last year, the official said.
Yemen experts have expressed skepticism about the escalating assertions about Aulaqi, and characterizations of him as a key operational figure.
“Certainly Aulaqi was a threat, but eliminating him is not the same as killing Osama bin Laden,” said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen. Johnsen noted that other AQAP figures are more influential in the organization, and more important to its operations. Among them are Naser Wuhayshi, the head of the organization, and Qassim al-Raymi, its military commander.
U.S. officials counter that it was Aulaqi who pushed the organization, which is comprised mainly of Saudis and Yemenis, to make hitting American targets a top priority. “He said publicly that was his goal,” the U.S. intelligence official said.
More from the Washington Post on Aulaqi:
Checkpoint Washington: Anwar al-Aulaqi had ties to Va. mosque
Checkpoint Washington: Aulaqi long escaped efforts to kill him
Foreign: A timeline of Aulaqi’s life
Checkpoint Washington: Reactions from around the world to his death
From the archives: The cleric’s reported role in attacks and attempted attacks
Photos: Most wanted al-Qaeda terrorist
BlogPost: What he preached