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American Cleric Killed By U.S. Airstrike In Yemen

David Greene talks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston about reports of the death of Anwar al-Awaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al-Qaida's arm in Yemen.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

And I'm David Greene.

There's been another major blow dealt to al-Qaida today. Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure with al-Qaida in Yemen, appears to have been killed. The Yemeni Defense Ministry made the announcement this morning. U.S. officials who spoke to NPR believe that al-Awlaki died early this morning in a drone strike on his convoy.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston covers counterterrorism and she joins us now. Dina, good morning to you, and what's the latest?

DINA TEMPLE: Well, U.S. officials are telling NPR that al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike by a Hellfire missile. And the announcement came out of the Yemeni Defense Ministry this morning. So it's kind of hard to tell right now what role the Yemeni military may have played in the attack. The Yemenis are saying that al-Awlaki and his bodyguards were killed in the operation and the U.S. is confirming that.

The thing is, the U.S. likes to have DNA evidence before confirming the death of someone they've been hunting. They even took a DNA sample from bin Laden to confirm his death. And they don't have that DNA on al-Awlaki. And he's in the middle of the desert, apparently, where he was killed, so it's unclear whether they'll get that evidence.

GREENE: The final, final confirmation might be a while out. Remind us why this man was so important.

TEMPLE: Well, he was key because al-Awlaki has this enormous following in the West, because he spoke English and he had a huge Internet presence. And if you ask intelligence officials, they'll tell you that al-Awlaki's name came up in nearly every plot that was leveled against the U.S. and Britain in the past two years. The alleged Fort Hood shooter, for example, Major Nidal Hasan - he had email correspondence with al-Awlaki. And al-Awlaki allegedly sanctioned that attack at Fort Hood.

Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the man who's now on trial in Michigan for the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner outside Detroit two years ago, also with an al-Awlaki connection. He allegedly told Abdulmuttalab to wait to detonate his bomb until he was over a U.S. city so there would be more casualties. You remember he had that bomb in his underwear and it malfunctioned. So for counterterrorism officials this killing is seen as a really big deal.

GREENE: So not just someone who spouts propaganda, not just a public figure; someone with some real operational connections, it sounds like.

TEMPLE: Apparently so.

GREENE: If, as you say, this was an American drone strike that, if this is true, killed someone born in America, doesn't that raise some legal questions?

TEMPLE: Potentially. I mean, this might be seen as something like a summary execution. I mean, al-Awlaki wasn't brought to trial. As far as we know, he wasn't charged for anything. So there's going to be a debate about the legal authority to conduct an attack like this, particularly not when it happened in a country where the U.S. isn't conducting military operations.

But then again, this has happened before. Back in 2002, there was an American al-Qaida recruiter named Kamal Derwish; he was in a convoy and he was killed by an airstrike. So they've had this happen before.

GREENE: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reporting for us. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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