WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration has authorized operations to capture or kill a U.S.-born Muslim cleric based in Yemen, who is described by a key lawmaker as Americas's top terrorist threat, officials said on Tuesday.
The decision to add Anwar al-Awlaki, of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to the target list followed a National Security Council review prompted by his status as a U.S. citizen.
Officials said Awlaki directly threatened the United States. "Awlaki is a proven threat," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He's being targeted."
Rep. Jane Harman, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, described Awlaki as "probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us."
"He is very much in the sights of the Yemenis, with us helping them," said Harman, who recently visited Yemen to meet with U.S. and Yemeni officials.
She told Reuters that Awlaki's U.S. citizenship made going after him "certainly complicated."
But Harman said President Barack Obama and his administration "made very clear that people, including Americans who are trying to attack our country, are people we will definitely pursue... are targets of the United States."
The U.S. target list is secret and it was not immediately clear whether Awlaki was the first American added, as some experts had suggested he would be.
Yemen has carried out air strikes with U.S. assistance to target al Qaeda leaders, but there have been conflicting reports about whether Awlaki was present during any of those attacks. U.S. officials believe he remains in hiding in Yemen.
U.S. intelligence agencies had viewed Awlaki as chiefly an al Qaeda sympathizer and recruiter for Islamist causes with possible ties to some of the September 11, 2001, hijackers.
That assessment changed late last year with revelations about his contacts with a Nigerian suspect in the attempted bombing of a transatlantic passenger jet as it approached Detroit on December 25 and with a U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of shooting dead 13 people at a military base in Texas on November 5.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The suspected bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been cooperating with U.S. authorities, providing intelligence about the group, which allegedly supplied him with explosives that were sewn into his underwear, officials said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials described Awlaki as the main force behind AQAP's decision to transform itself from a regional threat into what U.S. spy agencies see as al Qaeda's most active affiliate outside Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Born in New Mexico, Awlaki was an imam at mosques in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Virginia, just outside Washington. He returned to Yemen in 2004 where he taught at a university before he was arrested and imprisoned in 2006 for suspected links to al Qaeda and involvement in attacks.
Awlaki, part of a prominent Yemeni family, was released in December 2007 because he said he had repented, according to a Yemeni security official. But he was later charged again on similar counts and went into hiding.
After Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, U.S. authorities said he had frequently been in email contact with Awlaki.
And after the Christmas Day plot, U.S. and Yemeni officials said they learned that Awlaki had met with Abdulmutallab in Yemen.
In a recent interview with a Yemeni freelance journalist, posted on Al Jazeera television's website, Awlaki described Abdulmutallab as "one of my students" but said he did not encourage the attack.
Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by David Alexander and David Storey