An American-Yemeni cleric whose Internet sermons are believed to have helped inspire attacks on the U.S. has advocated the killing of American civilians in an al-Qaida video released Sunday.
Anwar al-Awlaki has been singled out by U.S. officials as a key terrorist threat and has reportedly been added to the CIA's list of targets for assassination despite his American citizenship. He is of particular concern because he is one of the few English-speaking radical clerics able to explain to young Muslims in America and other Western countries the philosophy of violent jihad.
The U.S.-born al-Awlaki moved to Yemen in 2004 and is in hiding there after being linked to the suspects in the November shooting at an Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, and the December attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit.
"Those who might be killed in a plane are merely a drop of water in a sea," he said in the video in response to a question about Muslim groups that disapproved of the airliner plot because it targeted civilians.
Al-Awlaki used the 45-minute video to justify civilian deaths — and encourage them — by accusing the United States of intentionally killing a million Muslim civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
American civilians are to blame, he said, because "the American people, in general, are taking part in this and they elected this administration and they are financing the war."
The video was produced by the media arm of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though the exact nature of al-Awlaki's ties with the group and possible direct role in it are unclear. The U.S. says he is an active participant in the group, though members of his tribe have denied that.
For its part, al-Qaida appears to be trying to make use of his recruiting power by putting him in its videos. Its media arm said Sunday's video was its first interview with the cleric.
In the months before the Fort Hood shooting, which killed 13 people, al-Awlaki exchanged e-mails with the alleged attacker, U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki's Internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.
Yemen's government says al-Awlaki is also suspected of contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused in the failed attempt to blow up the Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen late last year, and U.S. investigators say he told them that he received training and his bomb from Yemen's al-Qaida offshoot.
In Sunday's video, al-Awlaki praised both men and referred to them as his "students."
Speaking of Hasan, the cleric said, "What he did was heroic and great. ... I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit."
Al-Awlaki appears in the video wearing a white Yemeni robe, turban and with a traditional jambiyah dagger tucked into his waistband.
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico. His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, was in the United States studying agriculture at the time and later returned with his family to Yemen to serve as agriculture minister. The father remains a prominent figure in Yemen, teaching at San'a University in the capital.
The younger al-Awlaki returned to the United States in 1991 to study civil engineering at Colorado State University, then education at San Diego State University, followed by doctoral work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He was also a preacher at mosques in California and Virginia before returning to Yemen in 2004.
"We have had more freedom in America than in any Muslim country," he said in Sunday's video. "But when America started to feel the danger of Islam's message, it tightened limits on freedom, and after 9/11 it was impossible to live in America as a Muslim."
Al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding in Yemen's Shabwa province, the rugged region of towering mountains that is home to his large tribe.
Yemen, which has cooperated with the United States in battling al-Qaida, says it is searching for the cleric.
Al-Awlaki said he was moving from place to place under the protection of his tribe.
The New York Times reported in April that the Obama administration has authorized his killing.
"As for the Americans, I will never surrender to them," he said. "If they want me, they have to search for me and God is the one who decides my fate."
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