By Sudarsan Raghavan and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 25, 2009; A01
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.
U.S. officials said Aulaqi was a member of al-Qaeda and has been moving up the ranks, having recently been promoted to regional commander. But the officials described him less as an operational leader than an inspirational one, whose contacts with members took place largely online.
The Yemen Observer, a paper with ties to the government, reported that Aulaqi's house was "raided and demolished" in Thursday's strike.
But in interviews, Aulaqi's distraught relatives said they have had no official word about the cleric. They said they had spoken with relatives and friends in Shabwa province, the site of the assault, and do not believe that he was among those killed.
The cleric's father, a former Yemeni minister of agriculture, Nasser al-Aulaqi, said his son was living in the home of an uncle and, he believed, had left that residence about two months ago. The uncle's house is more than 40 miles from the attack site, the elder Aulaqi said in a rare interview.
"If the American government helped in attacking one of [its own] citizens, this is illegal," the father said, his voice cracking. "Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and he's going to get a trial. My son has killed nobody. He should face trial if he's done something wrong."
"If Obama wants to kill my son, this is wrong," he said, adding that despite his son's ideology, the younger Aulaqi had no links to al-Qaeda.
It would be highly unusual, though not unprecedented, for a U.S.-backed strike to kill an American citizen. A CIA missile strike by a pilotless aircraft killed Ahmed Hijazi, a U.S. citizen, in Yemen in 2002, in an attack aimed at suspected al-Qaeda members.
Yemeni officials had largely left Anwar al-Aulaqi alone since he gained international attention because of the Fort Hood attacks. In interviews this week before the Thursday attack, officials said the United States has provided little proof for them to take the cleric into custody. But they acknowledged that they had kept a close watch over him.
"He's under scrutiny by our security forces," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubaker al-Qirbi said Monday. "We're looking at this from a legal point of view. From his statements on his Web sites alone, there is a question whether he can be prosecuted on this basis."
Shabwa is a known haven for al-Qaeda militants. Yemeni security and government sources said the dead in Thursday's attack included suspected al-Qaeda members of Yemeni and foreign nationalities, but they would not elaborate. Al-Qaeda here is made up largely of Yemeni and Saudi nationals, according to analysts.
Tribal leaders and eyewitnesses said they buried five al-Qaeda operatives after the assault. Lahmar bin Salfooh, a tribal chief, said all five were from Aulaqi's tribe, which dominates Shabwa province.
In the Fallujah Forum, an online discussion forum for al-Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen, participants said Shabwa residents had noticed yellow-and-green military-style spotter balloons floating above the area in the three days before the strike, said Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert and researcher for the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation. That might have warned Aulaqi and the al-Qaeda leaders at the meeting.
"This may have given these guys the sense that something was going on," Kohlmann said.
Shear reported from Washington. Special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee in Sanaa and staff writers Greg Jaffe, Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.