SANAA, Yemen — A senior Yemeni government official said Saturday that he did not believe that an al-Qaeda bomb-maker was among those killed along with radical Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaqi in a U.S. drone strike Friday, disputing media reports that cited some U.S. officials.
“Al-Asiri was not among those killed,” said Yemen’s deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi, referring to Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi national who is thought to have made the explosives used in two botched attempts by al-Qaeda’s Yemen wing to blow up U.S.-bound airliners.
Other U.S. officials have also said they were not able to confirm that Asiri was killed in the airstrike. Asiri’s death would have dealt a serious blow to the operational capabilities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps even a greater loss for the affiliate than the death of Awlaqi, the architect of the group’s global jihadist ambitions.
In a news conference earlier Saturday, Janadi also said that Awlaqi’s father would pick up his son’s remains in the northern province of Jawf, where the airstrike unfolded.
“It is not a corpse. He is in pieces,” Janadi said. “The Yemeni government will not interfere with any type of final rites.”
The strike that U.S. and Yemeni authorities confirmed killed Awlaqi also killed a second U.S. citizen — Samir Khan, the co-editor of an al-Qaeda magazine — and two other unidentified al-Qaeda operatives, the Yemeni government said Friday. Tribal leaders in the area said at least seven people were killed in all.
Awlaqi’s death comes five months after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda network, in a raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Obama administration in recent months has escalated the use of drones to target al-Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen and Somalia.
President Obama called Awlaqi’s death “a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate” and described him as “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” or AQAP. “In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama said.
Awlaqi’s death could have far-reaching implications for Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East and one that has been gripped for eight months by a standoff between the government and demonstrators determined to bring an end to the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, who returned to Yemen last week after a 31 / 2-month absence for medical treatment following an assassination attempt, has long portrayed himself as a U.S. ally who is essential to counterterrorism efforts. Critics say that his refusal to resign is the main source of instability in the country and that his government has allowed al-Qaeda to thrive on Yemeni soil.
On Friday, Yemeni officials were pointing to Awlaqi’s death as evidence of Saleh’s effectiveness as a U.S. partner, while opposition leaders said they feared that it would ease international pressure on the president to step aside.
Awlaqi, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, has been implicated in helping to motivate several attacks in the United States. He is believed to have inspired an Army officer who is charged with killing 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., a Nigerian student accused of attempting to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner the following month and a Pakistani-American man who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in May 2010. Awlaqi has also been linked to an attempt in 2010 to send parcel bombs on cargo planes bound for the United States.
As a fluent speaker of English and Arabic, and a savvy user of Web sites, Awlaqi was able to gather a following online and radicalize Muslims he had never met, earning him a reputation as “the bin Laden of the Internet,” U.S. officials said.
In April 2010, the Obama administration authorized his targeted killing. Awlaqi had been the target of previous U.S. strikes and was quoted as laughing off an attempt to kill him in May.
Khan, a member of AQAP, co-edited the group’s slick English-language Internet magazine, Inspire, which was intended to recruit Westerners to al-Qaeda’s fold. Awlaqi was believed to have played a role in creating the online-only magazine, whose first issue in July 2010 included an article titled “Making a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.”
The first word of Friday’s strike came from the Yemeni Defense Ministry, which sent a text message to journalists announcing that “the terrorist Anwar al-Aulaqi has been killed along with some of his companions.” In a separate e-mailed statement, the Yemeni government said Awlaqi was “targeted and killed” five miles from the town of Khashef in Jawf province, 87 miles east of the capital, Sanaa. The attack, the statement said, was launched at 9:55 a.m. local time Friday.
Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemeni government spokesman, said in an e-mail that Yemeni intelligence had pinpointed Awlaqi’s hideout and monitored his movements before the airstrike. A U.S. official also said there was close cooperation with the Yemenis.
In a telephone interview, a tribal leader in Jawf province, near the site of the attack, said U.S. drones had been flying over the region for days. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions, the tribal leader said Awlaqi had been moving in the provinces of Marib and Jawf for the past three weeks because he was concerned he could be targeted in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province, where he had long sought shelter under the protection of his powerful tribe.
A second tribal leader in Jawf, who also requested anonymity, said by telephone that Khamis bin Arfaaj, the brother of one of those who was killed, told him that a total of seven people were killed in the airstrike, which involved two separate missile attacks, moments apart.
According to this account, Awlaqi and his companions had eaten breakfast and had just left the house to walk toward their cars, parked about 700 yards from the house. Awlaqi was apparently killed in the second strike, as he and others ran toward a pickup truck to escape, the tribal leader said, quoting bin Arfaaj. After the attack, which tore the bodies to pieces, bin Arfaaj and other men buried Awlaqi and his comrades nearby and left, the tribal leader said.
Awlaqi’s relatives declined requests for interviews Friday. In a text message, his brother Amar wrote, “Let us grieve please.” Members of his tribe in Shabwa expressed anger at the Yemeni government for cooperating with the United States in hunting down Awlaqi.
Since the Fort Hood shootings, the United States has pressured Yemeni authorities to capture Awlaqi. But those efforts largely failed because of the government’s limited resources and lack of authority in Yemen’s south. And as Yemen’s populist uprising gathered momentum, weakening Saleh’s grip and ushering in a widening political crisis, Yemeni officials said earlier this year that finding Awlaqi had become even less of a priority.
The Obama administration has been urging Saleh to accept a speedy transfer of power, which the president has defiantly resisted.
Senior Yemeni officials on Friday declared the attack a success in Yemen’s campaign against al-Qaeda.
“The Americans are now going to reach an understanding that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is serious about fighting terrorism,” said Janadi, the deputy information minister.
Janadi said he was disappointed by comments by the U.S. State Department on Friday that Awlaqi’s death would not change U.S. demands for Saleh to step aside.
Opposition leaders expressed concern Friday that Awlaqi’s death could boost American support for Saleh, allowing him to remain in power longer.
Mohammed Qahtan, a top opposition official, predicted Saleh would try “very hard to use Awlaqi’s death to blackmail the Americans” into giving him more support.
Said Obaid, a Yemeni political analyst who wrote a book about al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, said Awlaqi’s death is unlikely to weaken AQAP because Awlaqi will be depicted as a martyr. Despite Friday’s strike, the group’s top leaders, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, are still at large. It remains to be seen whether they or others inside AQAP can fill Awlaqi’s role as a recruiter and propaganda czar, although they now have fresh material to work with.
“Al-Qaeda is going to use his death to perform many more operations, especially since he was killed by an American airstrike,” Obaid said. “Al-Qaeda is known for using such incidents to its advantage.”
Staff writers William Branigin, Greg Miller, Karen DeYoung, William Wan, Michelle Boorstein, Greg Jaffe, Aaron C. Davis and Kafia Hosh in Washington and special correspondent Mohammed al-Qadhi in Sanaa contributed to this report.