By Matt Spetalnick and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials said Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, was killed in a CIA drone strike on Friday.
U.S. and Yemeni officials said they also believed a second English-speaking Qaeda operative, Samir Khan, was killed at the same time, although this was not 100 percent confirmed. One U.S. official said Khan was editor of "Inspire," a magazine-style publication which had become al Qaeda's principal English-language propaganda vehicle.
U.S. officials hailed the developments as successes for Washington and its partners in the fight against Islamic militancy.
They were the latest in a series of deadly U.S. strikes against violent militants, including a May raid that killed Osama bin Laden and a late August drone attack that killed the organization's recently promoted No. 2.
In this case, the U.S. target was singular: an American-born cleric whom U.S. officials said headed al Qaeda's most dangerous offshoot and had a role in at least two failed plots to target the United States.
"Awlaki's demise deals a decisive blow to al-Qaeda in Yemen. This was a terrorist who wasn't simply a propagandist, but over the years had become an operational figure who was increasingly focused on planning and carrying out attacks against the United States and our allies," a senior U.S. defense official said. "A very bad man just had a very bad day."
Two other U.S. officials said Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in a remote Yemeni town. One of the officials said that Khan was believed killed in the same drone strike.
The U.S. government branded Awlaki a "global terrorist" last year. He had been targeted more than once by U.S. forces authorized to kill him because of what Washington believed was the role he played in radicalizing English-speaking Muslims and because of his alleged role in plots to attack U.S. targets.
U.S. intelligence had identified him as "chief of external operations" for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the most dangerous of the militant network's far-flung branches.
Along with planning attacks against the United States, Awlaki "publicly urged attacks against U.S. persons and interests worldwide and called for violence against Arab governments he judged to be working against al Qaeda," one U.S. official said.
Awlaki was implicated in at least two major U.S. incidents in 2009. Following the shooting attack on soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas, by U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, investigators found evidence that Hasan had been in e-mail contact with Awlaki.
U.S. investigators also believe there was contact between Awlaki and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born militant who studied Arabic in Yemen and then unsuccessfully attempted to attack a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underpants.
Awlaki also was accused of helping to oversee a failed plot in October 2010 to blow up U.S. cargo aircraft, an Obama administration official said.
In the wake of the Christmas Day incident, the White House decided that Awlaki's role in al Qaeda activities had gone beyond the type of inspirational agitation and preaching protected by the U.S. Constitution to involve Awlaki in operational plotting of attacks.
As a consequence, U.S. agencies were authorized to kill Awlaki if he could be found. U.S. officials said at the time Awlaki was the first American citizen to be targeted for possible U.S. lethal attack since al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
The targeting of a U.S. citizen raised concerns among civil libertarians about extra-judicial killings, however. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said: "The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law."
By 2010, U.S. agencies had collected information indicating that from his hide-out in Yemen, Awlaki had been in contact with tens of thousands of e-mail account holders, some of whom got in touch with him via a website where he offered political and spiritual advice. In recent months, a U.S. official said, Awlaki had cut himself off from the Internet, apparently for security reasons.
It was unclear whether Awlaki's killing would ease strains between U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is clinging to power despite months of popular protests, factional violence and international pressure.
The White House has repeatedly called on Saleh to relinquish power and start a democratic transition.
STEPPED-UP DRONE STRIKES
The United States has stepped up drone strikes in Yemen to try and keep al Qaeda off balance and prevent it from capitalizing on the strife and chaos gripping the nation.
U.S. intelligence officials have said al Qaeda has been severely debilitated by the loss of some of its top leaders, including bin Laden.
Several alleged Qaeda operational chiefs also have died in drone strikes in Pakistan.
In Washington, U.S. Representative Peter King, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, called the killing of Awlaki "a great success in our fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
"For the past several years, al-Awlaki has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been. The killing of al-Awlaki is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community," King, a Republican, said.
But he said the United States must remain vigilant "knowing that there are more Islamic terrorists who will gladly step forward to backfill this dangerous killer."
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Eric Beech)