Al Qaeda leader killed in Yemen

It’s been quite a losing streak for al Qaeda lately, and the overnight developments in Yemen are another major blow to the terrorist network.

In a significant and dramatic strike in the campaign against Al Qaeda, the Defense Ministry here said American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in the group’s outpost in Yemen, was killed on Friday morning.

In Washington senior Obama administration officials confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was dead. But the circumstances surrounding the killing remained unclear.

Initial reports indicated that Yemeni forces had carried out the attack, but those reports have since been revised. U.S. forces have targeted Awlaki for months, narrowly missing him in a strike earlier this year, and NBC’s Richard Engel quotes an unnamed source saying U.S. planes launched the attack.

Nevertheless, while we wait for additional details, Awlaki’s demise is no small development. An American-born terrorist of Yemeni descent, Awlaki has been considered a leading operational planner for al Qaeda, and the network’s top English-language propagandist, linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the West, including the botched underwear bombing in 2009.

As for the larger context, Awlaki’s death comes closely on the heels of U.S. forces killing Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al Qaeda’s second-ranking figure, in late August, which came soon after the strike on Osama bin Laden in May.

And those deaths follow U.S. forces killing al Qaeda financial chief Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and al Qaeda spiritual leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, among others.

Adding to al Qaeda’s losing streak, the underlying point of the terrorist network’s message throughout the Middle East — that terrorism and anti-Western violence are the only means towards social progress — has been proven false by the Arab Spring and the changes seen in Egypt and elsewhere. It also comes as al Qaeda’s fundraising efforts, thought to be thriving a half-decade ago, are reportedly struggling badly.

I’ll look forward to conservatives explaining to the public why all of this is evidence of weakness under the Obama presidency.

This is not to say al Qaeda is no longer dangerous, but the network appears to be reeling. This larger trend is clearly heartening.

Update: BBC reports that President Obama “is said to have personally ordered [Awlaki’s] killing.”

Second Update: There’s a larger question about the propriety of the U.S. killing an American-born citizen, even one who leaves the country to join al Qaeda, without due process. For more on this question, consider analyses from Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer.

Third Update: More questions on the legal, moral, and political propriety of the attack.