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Yemeni source: Drone strike misses al-Awlaki, hits two supporters

From Mohammed Jamjoom and Hakim Almasmari, CNN
  • Two of al-Awlaki's supporters died after the vehicles were switched
  • The target was not the result of info from bin Laden raid
  • A Saudi AQAP member was with al-Awlaki

(CNN) -- Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric based in Yemen, dodged and survived an American drone assault after he switched vehicles with fellow jihadis, a senior security official told CNN on Saturday.

American officials on Friday confirmed the recent strike, an operation that one defense official said was carried out by the U.S. military.

The Yemeni security official said Yemeni government officials gave U.S. authorities vital details about the whereabouts of al-Awlaki -- regarded by U.S. officials as a top leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network's branch in Yemen.

He had been Abdan village in southern Yemen's Shabwa province when the Americans took action against him, the official said.

Al-Awlaki and a Saudi member of AQAP were traveling in a pickup truck. The drone shot three missiles at the vehicle and missed.

Eventually, al-Awlaki and his Saudi companion switched vehicles with two of his supporters -- brothers who are suspected members of al Qaeda and al-Awlaki supporters, the security official said.

Al-Awlaki and his companion were able to escape the scene in the brothers' Suzuki Vitara, but the brothers died when another missile strike hit the al-Awlaki pick-up truck.

This appears to corroborate U.S. assertions that the strike appeared to have killed two al Qaeda operatives affiliated with al-Awlaki, and the notorious militant survived.

The United States "did not know that vehicles were exchanged and resulted in the wrong people dying and Awlaki is still alive," the Yemeni security official said.

"The target was not supposed to be the two brothers," the security official said. "But when the missiles missed al-Awlaki's vehicle, he was able to switch cars and escape being killed."

The targeting information was not the result of data gleaned from the seizure Monday of materials from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, a U.S. official said.

Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and preached at a mosque in Virginia before leaving the United States for Yemen.

Early this year, a Yemeni court sentenced al-Awlaki in absentia to 10 years in prison for charges of inciting to kill foreigners.

Prosecutors charged al-Awlaki and two others with "forming an armed gang" to target foreign officers and law enforcement in November.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempt to ship explosives into the United States via cargo planes late last year.

U.S. officials say al-Awlaki helped recruit Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a transatlantic flight as it landed in Detroit, Michigan, on December 25, 2009.

The militant cleric is also said to have exchanged e-mails with accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hassan.

U.S. President Barack Obama's counterterrorism chief, Michael Leiter, has said al-Awlaki posed a bigger threat to the U.S. homeland than bin Laden did.

But al-Awlaki is considered a long shot to replace bin Laden as leader of al Qaeda, according to CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Though al-Awlaki is a powerful charismatic preacher for bin Laden's cause and an important figure within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he possesses none of the combat track record that al Qaeda members over the years have prized in their leaders.

As for the drone strike, Shabwa is a stronghold for militants, and Abdan residents interviewed by CNN aren't surprised at the attack.

"We knew the government would allow the U.S. to attack our areas after the death of Bin Laden," Salem Sakheer told CNN.