U.S.-aided attack in Yemen thought to have killed Aulaqi, 2 al-Qaeda leaders

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 25, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- Yemeni forces, backed by the United States, launched a major attack Thursday on a meeting of senior al-Qaeda operatives thought to include the Yemeni American cleric linked to the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

U.S. officials believe that the cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was probably killed in the assault, as were two al-Qaeda leaders, according to a senior Obama administration official.

One of those leaders was the head of the terrorist network's operations on the Arabian Peninsula and once served as Osama bin Laden's personal secretary; the other was a Saudi national and former detainee at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yemeni officials, tribal leaders and eyewitnesses said it was not clear whether Aulaqi and the al-Qaeda leaders were killed or wounded in the strike. They cautioned that it could take days for authorities to identify the dead.

Still, the U.S. involvement in the strike in southeastern Yemen -- along with a similar strike in the country last week -- appears to reflect greater willingness by the Obama administration to use military force in confronting terrorists outside the traditional war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week's strike was seen at the time as the most significant example of the new approach, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the planning and execution of the attack.

It was not clear whether U.S. firepower was employed in either attack. A U.S. official said the United States did provide intelligence and other support.

The Thursday assault killed at least 30 suspected militants, according to Yemeni security and government sources. In a statement, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said Aulaqi was thought to be at the meeting, as were Nasser al-Wuhayshi, al-Qaeda's regional leader, and his deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri.

A U.S. official identified the two al-Qaeda leaders as "the two biggest fish in the most violent offshoot of al-Qaeda that exists in the world."

"This is a decapitating strike on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

Yemen's government, with increasing assistance from the United States, has been intensifying its crackdown on alleged hideouts of al-Qaeda, which in recent years has expanded its presence in this poor yet strategic Middle Eastern nation where bin Laden's father was born. The U.S. government is increasingly concerned that al-Qaeda could create a haven in Yemen, whose weak central government is struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a crumbling economy.

Aulaqi was among the latest reasons for U.S. concern in Yemen, officials said. The radical cleric, a native of New Mexico and a former imam at Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, had contact with three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and frequently delivered lectures advocating violent jihad that attracted legions of followers, especially among radical Muslims in the West.

He also exchanged e-mails with Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who is suspected of opening fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., on Nov. 5, leaving 13 dead. Aulaqi praised Hasan in interviews and on his Web site, calling the Army psychiatrist a "hero" for killing American military personnel.

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