American-Born Cleric Al-Awlaki Killed

The American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen. Awlaki has been linked to several terrorist plots targeting the United States. According to reports, he was struck by a missile fired from a drone while traveling in a convoy. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. And we begin this hour with a big development in the fight against al-Qaida. A key member of the group's arm in Yemen, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike. President Obama spoke earlier today.

President BARACK OBAMA: Make no mistake, this is further proof that al-Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world. Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.

NORRIS: U.S. officials confirmed Awlaki was killed when a Hellfire missile hit his convoy. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with more details. And, Dina, what else can you tell us about that strike?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, U.S. officials tell NPR that the CIA and Special Operations were behind the attack, and they've been working very closely with the Yemenis to get Awlaki, particularly with regard to surveillance on him. The announcement came out of the Yemeni defense ministry, but it's hard to tell right now exactly what role the Yemenis played in the attack itself. What we do know from our sources is that the Yemeni government has been really eager to show the U.S. that they're willing to help fight al-Qaida, particularly with the instability that's raging in the country right now.

And in recent months, U.S. officials tell us that the flow of information coming to the U.S. from the Yemenis has been enormous. The Yemenis have allowed more drone flights. They've allowed Americans in to interrogations. So that's one of the reasons, I think, they've been given so much credit for having helped with this operation.

NORRIS: And in terms of the overall battle against al-Qaida, why is the death of Awlaki so important?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, remember, he's an American. He studied in the U.S. He was an imam who preached in mosques both in San Diego and Virginia. And he spent enough time here to really understand how we tick, what makes us tick. And that's a huge advantage for al-Qaida because they want Western recruits. They know they have to have people who are in a position to attack who don't need visas, who can get pass our immigration status undetected and not attract suspicion.

And Awlaki's followers were exactly those people that al-Qaida was hoping to attract. He had an amazing reach in the West because he has a huge Internet presence, and he was very effective. If you ask intelligence officials, they'll tell you that Awlaki was linked in one way or another with nearly every plot that was leveled against the U.S. in the past two years.

NORRIS: And could you just remind us about the details of some of these plots?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, here's just a sampling. Take the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, he had had email correspondence with Awlaki. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who's now on trial in Michigan for the attempted bombing of the U.S. airliner outside Detroit two Christmases ago, he told investigators that Awlaki had told him to wait until he was over U.S. soil to detonate this bomb he had in his underwear because it would mean more casualties. And then there's Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who built the car bomb that was supposed to go off in Times Square but failed to go off, he said Awlaki was a big inspiration.

NORRIS: Awlaki wasn't the only American caught in this attack. Apparently, Samir Khan, a North Carolina man who was editing al-Qaida's online magazine, was also killed. Tell us a little bit about him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, that's right. Samir Khan has been confirmed killed as well. He was the editor of this online webzine called "Inspire," and he started it a little over a year ago. And it was just like Awlaki's lectures and videos on the Internet, clearly aimed at American or Western Muslims who are toying with the idea of violence. And the magazine had articles, for example, how to make a bomb in your mother's kitchen sink. And the seventh issue just came out last week, and it was dedicated to 10 years of al-Qaida terrorist operations. And Khan signed some of the articles in the magazine. And in one issue recently, he explained in his words why he felt he became a traitor and came to hate America.

NORRIS: Quickly, what does this mean for al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, al-Qaida's arm in Yemen is considered by the U.S. to be the most active and the most dangerous, and Awlaki is just one person in the organization, but he's a key person because he had this connection with the West and this English-language connection. And Khan, as it turns out, would have been probably the person who would have replaced him. So in one sort of blow, they have taken out two generations.

NORRIS: And that's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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