Published December 24, 2009
The radical Muslim imam linked to the rampage at Fort Hood reportedly is believed to have been killed in a Yemen airstrike that may have also taken out the region's top Al Qaeda leader and 30 other militants.
The raid in Yemen's east targeted an Al Qaeda leadership meeting held to organize terror attacks. U.S. officials believe radical cleric Anwar Awlaki was "probably" one of dozens of militants killed in the strike, a source confirmed to FOX News.
"Awlaki is suspected to be dead [in the air raid]," Reuters quoted an unnamed Yemeni official as saying.
The head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wahishi and his deputy, Saeed al-Saudi Shahrani, were present at the meeting and are believed to have died, but their deaths could not immediately be confirmed.
"The raid was carried out as dozens of members of Al Qaeda were meeting in Wadi Rafadh," a source told AFP, referring to a rugged location about 400 miles east of the capital.
"Members of the group's leadership, including Saad al-Fathani and Mohammad Ahmed Saleh al-Omir, were among those killed," he was quoted as saying.
"Saudis and Iranians at the Wadi Rafadh meeting were also among the dead," said the source, without going into detail.
Awlaki was once the imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Virginia, where the FBI says he had a close relationship with two of the 9/11 hijackers. He fled the U.S. in 2002, eventually returning to Yemen, where he promoted the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies to a growing religious following in sermons and online.
In an interview posted on Al Jazeera's Web site, Awlaki said he received an e-mail from Fort Hood gunman Maj. Nidal Hasan on Dec. 17, 2008, "asking for an edict regarding the [possibility] of a Muslim soldier [killing] colleagues who serve with him in the American army."
Awlaki, who was born in Las Cruces, N.M., said subsequent e-mails "mentioned the religious justifications for targeting the Jews with missiles." He told the Washington Post in an interview that Hasan eventually came to regard him as a confidant.
A Yemeni official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to AFP, said those attending the meeting "planned to launch terrorist attacks against economic installations in Yemen, in retaliation for Yemeni strikes launched last week."
On Dec. 17, warplanes and security forces on the ground attacked what authorities said was an Al Qaeda training camp in the area of Mahsad in the southern province of Abyan. Saleh el-Shamsy, a provincial security official, said at least 30 suspected militants were killed. Witnesses, however, put the number killed at over 60 in the heaviest strike and said the dead were mostly civilians.
Much like the effort with Pakistan's Frontier Corps, the U.S. military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
The Yemeni Interior Ministry said 25 suspected Al Qaeda members were arrested Wednesday in San'a and it has set up checkpoints in the capital to control traffic flow as part of a campaign to clamp down on terrorism.
The United States has repeatedly called on Yemen to take stronger action against Al Qaeda, whose fighters have taken advantage of the central government's weakness and increasingly found refuge here in the past year. Worries over the growing presence are compounded by fears that Yemen could collapse into turmoil from its multiple conflicts and increasing poverty and become another Afghanistan, giving the militants even freer reign.
The country was the scene of one of Al Qaeda's most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors. The government allied itself with Washington in the war on terror, but U.S officials have complained that it often strikes deals with militants.
Fox News' Mike Levine and the Associated Press contributed to this report.