ADEN, Yemen — Ten months ago, a tribal leader spotted Anwar al-Aulaqi, the Yemeni American cleric whom U.S. officials consider a top operative of the world’s most worrisome terrorist group.
“He was at a funeral,” said Saleh Ali al-Duriya, who lives a 15-minute drive away from Aulaqi’s tribal village.
Three months ago, Aulaqi was “walking freely” in Ataq, the capital of a remote southeastern province, said Mohsin Bin Farid, his uncle and an opposition leader. “So many people saw him,” he said.
For months, the United States has urged Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to capture Aulaqi, a 39-year-old born in New Mexico who has been implicated in several attacks on U.S. soil. In April, the Obama administration authorized his targeted killing.
Even before the outbreak of a popular uprising that threatens to topple Saleh’s government, Yemen’s efforts to capture Aulaqi were plagued by limited resources and lack of governmental authority in the southern part of the country, where he is suspected to be hiding. But now, with the government struggling for its survival, Yemeni officials say the quest to find Aulaqi has become even less of a priority, and the chances of one of the world’s most wanted men continuing to escape capture are even greater.
In recent days, Saleh’s hold on power has appeared increasingly fragile as top generals and diplomats have defected. He has also lost the support of key tribes, which are resentful of a government they view as corrupt, nepotistic and incapable of providing even basic services.
With no clear plan for transitioning power should Saleh fall, there is a risk of deeper instability in Yemen — which Aulaqi and his allies could seek to exploit. Even if Saleh survives, his government’s capacity to confront Aulaqi and other terrorism suspects would probably be severely constrained.
“We have to deal with these political problems first. Finding Aulaqi is not on anyone’s mind,” said a senior ruling party official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive, especially to the United States, which considers Saleh a vital counterterrorism ally.
Aulaqi, who lived in Virginia and was the imam of a mosque in Falls Church, left the United States in 2002. He was detained in Yemen in 2006 at the request of the United States but was released later that year.
He is thought to have taken up residence in Yemen’s restive south and has since been linked to the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Tex., and the failed plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day the same year. U.S. officials allege that Aulaqi had graduated from inspiring attacks to orchestrating them as a top operative in al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Since then, Aulaqi has continued rising to the upper echelons of the group. In November, AQAP asserted responsibility for a plot in which parcel bombs ended up on cargo planes bound for the United States. Aulaqi is thought to have played a role in creating Inspire, an English-language magazine published by the terrorist group that is intended to recruit Westerners.
Aulaqi’s lectures in English on Islamic scripture also engage a large following online. In May, a 21-year-old British student told police that she stabbed a lawmaker after watching Aulaqi’s videos.
Last month, Michael Leiter, the U.S. official in charge of analyzing terrorism threats, told a congressional committee that Aulaqi and AQAP probably posed “the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”
“Anwar Aulaqi is creating a new al-Qaeda,” said Said Obaid, a Yemeni analyst who has written a book about AQAP. “They’ve become stronger since he joined them.”
Facing heightened U.S. pressure after the parcel-bomb plot, a Yemeni judge on Nov. 6 ordered the “forcible arrest” of Aulaqi, dead or alive, for failure to appear at a trial over accusations that he inspired a Yemeni man to kill a French employee of an oil company. Two days later, Aulaqi released a video calling on his followers to kill Americans.
In January, a Yemeni court sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison on charges of incitement to kill foreigners. Last month, Aulaqi released an audiotape in support of a jailed Yemeni journalist who had close contacts with AQAP leaders.
Three months ago, security forces enlisted the help of tribes in the southern province of Shabwa to find Aulaqi, according to tribal leaders. The leaders said they were given large sums of money and ammunition to search about 180 square miles, a mission that was expected to last days. After four hours, the tribesmen declared that Aulaqi was not there.
“In Shabwa, if he goes to any tribe, they have him as a guest. And in our culture, it is a shame to tell any guest to go away,” said Bin Farid, Aulaqi’s uncle. “But they are not with him in his beliefs. Because there is no government there, everyone can run free.”
In interviews, some southern tribal leaders said they viewed Aulaqi as a heroic figure, an innocent preacher fighting against a great power, the United States. They rejected allegations that he is an al-Qaeda leader.
The growing protest movement in Yemen, along with a series of defections from the ruling party, is adding pressure on Saleh. Even before the uprising began last month, the government was dealing with a simmering rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and immense poverty.
Now, Saleh is fighting for his political survival. With large swaths of the country under tribal control, he needs to preserve his alliances with tribes — including with the Aulaqi tribe, one of Yemen’s strongest — and prevent them from joining the burgeoning opposition movement.
“Even if they want to get him, it will be very difficult,” said Nasser al-Aulaqi, the radical cleric’s father. “There’s no way for the Yemeni government to send troops to find him.”
Some ruling party officials noted that the United States has yet to find Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The United States, they say, needs to work more closely with local leaders in Yemen to help their areas develop economically.
“The best thing for the U.S. and international community is not to fall into the trap of score-settling,” said Mohammed Abu Loham, a top ruling party official and an influential tribal leader. “The last thing they need is to create more enemies.”
Other ruling party officials suggested that it was the responsibility of the United States to find Aulaqi and said that they have no idea where he is.
“The Americans know better than us where he is. They have all the technology,” said Sultan al-Barkani, a senior ruling party official. “If it’s so easy for us to catch him, why did we charge him in absentia for a crime?”
Aulaqi’s father insisted that his son is not an al-Qaeda leader. But he said the hunt has made his son even more famous and capable of inspiring future terrorists.
“Anwar was not well known in the Middle East or even in Yemen,” the elder Aulaqi said. “Now he is known from North Africa to every corner of the Arab world. All the young Muslim people love Anwar.”
Today, Aulaqi is protected not only in Yemen’s south. Tribal leaders in northern areas, where Saleh has long built support through a system of patronage, say they, too, would protect the cleric.
“Sheik Anwar is an intelligent man. He knows how to apply pressure on America,” said Abdullah al-Juaili, a tribal leader in the northwestern city of Al-Jawf. “I don’t believe he is al-Qaeda. If he comes to Al-Jawf, no one will touch him.”