Friday’s CIA drone strike, which killed Awlaki and a second American, came after days of careful surveillance and many months of searching. It stripped al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of two of its major propagandists and proponents of hitting Western targets, according to intelligence officials and terrorism experts.
But those individuals also cautioned that the group, which has a number of prominent members with a deep hatred for the United States, will continue to seize any opportunity to wound the West.
“Eliminating any single person doesn’t have a game-changing impact, and this won’t. But it’s a significant strike against al-Qaeda,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House intelligence committee. Awlaki “had an almost unique ability to reach out to Westerners — he was good with technology, he was a good propagandist, he understood Western culture, and he could attract people that could travel with U.S. passports.”
U.S. officials said that Awlaki’s operational role and the imminence of the threat he posed led them in early 2010 to place him on a capture or kill list. Yet he proved to be an elusive target.
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was the scion of a powerful tribe in southern Yemen and was presumed to be hiding in the protective embrace of his extended family. But a senior U.S. official said Awlaki, 40, seldom lived in the south, even though his tribe, the Awlak, wielded influence there. He moved between several locations in the provinces of Jawf and Marib, two al-Qaeda strongholds east of the capital, Sanaa.
“He occasionally went south, but generally speaking, his base was in the north, in Jawf and Marib,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “The Awlak tribe is in the south, but he wasn’t there. He was up north.”
The official said Awlaki was meticulous about leaving no electronic fingerprints. He didn’t talk on the phone or take other actions that would have betrayed his position.
“He was a careful guy,” the senior U.S. official said. “He exercised good operational security. He was a hard target.”
U.S. officials said cooperation with Yemeni security agencies has improved significantly in recent months despite rising political instability in the country. The Yemenis, after questioning a suspect, passed on information about Awlaki’s general whereabouts.
U.S. intelligence began to watch from the sky, and local tribal leaders in Jawf province said that in recent weeks they began to suspect, from faint visual cues, that there were drones operating more frequently above them.