SANAA, Yemen - Yemeni forces, backed by the United States, launched an attack yesterday on a Yemeni American preacher who is linked to the suspected gunman in last month's Fort Hood, Texas, attack, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.
The strike on an alleged al-Qaeda hideout killed at least 30 suspected militants and was the second such assault in the last week, according to Yemeni security and government sources. One of the targets was Anwar al-Aulaqi, the extremist preacher who exchanged e-mails with Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at the Texas Army base.
In a statement, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said that Aulaqi was believed to be attending a meeting of senior al-Qaeda leaders, including the terror network's regional leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and his deputy, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi national and former detainee at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Yemeni officials said the air strike unfolded in Rafadh, a remote mountainous area in Shabwa, a province in southeastern Yemen, where Aulaqi and senior al-Qaeda leaders were presumably meeting. A Yemeni official and local news reports said Aulaqi's house was also targeted, though it was unclear whether it was from an air strike or a subsequent raid.
It was unknown whether Aulaqi was killed or wounded in the strike.
The United States provided intelligence and other support in the strike, a U.S. official said. It was unclear whether U.S. firepower was used. A U.S. military spokesman declined to comment on the attack beyond praising Yemen for its strong stand against terrorism.
Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said yesterday, "The president supports the government of Yemen in their efforts to take out terrorist elements in their country." He would not comment on whether the United States knew the strike was coming.
The Yemen Observer, a local paper with ties to the government, reported that Aulaqi's house was "raided and demolished."
Aulaqi, who was born in New Mexico, has said he exchanged e-mails with Hasan. The radical preacher has also praised Hasan in interviews and on his Web site.
In interviews, Aulaqi's distraught relatives said they had had no official word about the cleric. But after speaking with relatives and friends in the province, they said, they did not believe that he was among those killed.
The cleric's father, former Yemeni minister of agriculture Nasser al-Aulaqi, said his son was living in the home of an uncle and, he believed, had left there about two months ago. The uncle's house is more than 40 miles from Rafadh, the elder Aulaqi said in a rare interview. But he did not know whether the uncle's house was destroyed.
"If the American government helped in attacking one of [its own] citizens, this is illegal," said Aulaqi, his voice cracking. "My son has killed nobody. He should face trial if he's done something wrong."
He said his son, despite his ideology, had no links to al-Qaeda. "I don't think he would be meeting with those people," Aulaqi said.
Yesterday's air strike allegedly targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda leaders gathered to discuss retaliatory attacks on Yemeni and foreign sites, including economic facilities, according to reports on the Web site of Yemen's official state agency Saba and 26Sep.net, a Web site linked to its military.
The Web sites, both citing security officials, said al-Qaeda's top leaders in the Arabian Peninsula - Wuhayshi and Shihri - were believed to be at the meeting. But a government official cautioned that their presence was yet to be confirmed.
Yemen's government, with U.S. assistance, has been intensifying its crackdown on alleged hideouts of al-Qaeda, whose presence in recent years has expanded in this poor yet strategic Middle East nation.