A U.S. drone strike in Yemen Thursday was aimed at killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric suspected of orchestrating terrorist attacks in the U.S, but the missile missed its target, according to Yemeni and U.S. officials.
The drone strike comes less than a week after a U.S. Navy SEALs team killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan. Had the drone strike in Yemen been successful, the U.S. would have killed two of the most-wanted terrorists in one week.
Mr. Awlaki has emerged as the charismatic front-man of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group the U.S. considers the most active terror organization in the world. With bin Laden's death, some officials believe Mr. Awlaki and his Yemen-based group now represents the gravest threat to the U.S. He has been linked to at least three major incidents: the Ft. Hood shootings, the Christmas 2009 plot to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane and a plan to blow up cargo planes.
The White House and defense officials declined to comment on the strikes.
The attack appears to be unrelated to intelligence information taken in the raid that killed bin Laden, whose death was confirmed by al Qaeda Friday in a statement that vowed to continue attacks on Americans.
The Central Intelligence Agency has been ramping up its intelligence collection in Yemen in recent months and works closely with Saudi intelligence.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been more forthcoming with information on Mr. Awlaki since he has faced major protests in his country, a U.S. official said. Mr. Saleh has sought to use that information in a bartering effort to gain more support from the U.S., the official added. The White House has backed an Arab proposal that would ease Mr. Saleh from office.
The strike sends a clear message that despite turmoil in the Middle East and the success of the bin Laden operation, the U.S. is resolved to ratchet up an aggressive campaign targeting Mr. Awlaki and other members of his group.
The attempt to kill Mr. Awlaki was the first known U.S. military strike inside Yemen since May 2010, when U.S. missiles mistakenly killed one of Mr. Saleh's envoys and an unknown number of other people. That soured relations and prompted the administration to pull back.
U.S. strikes between December 2009 and May 2010 were carried out by U.S. military aircraft and cruise missiles, not the kind of armed drones used in this attack. The last known strike by an unmanned aircraft in Yemen was conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002.
According to a Yemeni account of Thursday's strike, the U.S. launched two separate attacks aimed at Mr. Awlaki in the southern province of Shebwa, which is considered an AQAP stronghold.
The missiles killed two suspected AQAP members but missed their intended target, Mr. Awlaki. Although the strike was conducted by the military, the operation—like the bin Laden raid—appears to be the result of close cooperation between the Department of Defense, the CIA and Yemeni officials.
Yemen officials said the U.S. fired twice at Mr. Awlaki in two attacks spread over about 45 minutes. In the first, the U.S. fired three rockets at a pickup truck in which Mr. Awlaki and a Saudi national and suspected al Qaeda member were traveling outside the village of Jahwa, located some 20 miles away from the Shebwa provincial capital, according to local residents and the Yemeni security official.
Two Yemeni brothers, who were known by local residents for giving shelter to al Qaeda militants, rushed to the scene of the attack. Mr. Awlaki switched vehicles with them, leaving the two Yemenis in the pickup. A single missile from the U.S. rocket then hit the pickup truck, killing the Yemenis inside.
Mr. Awlaki escaped in the other vehicle.
A Yemeni defense ministry official identified the two dead men as Musaid Mubarak Al-Daghari and his brother Abdullah.
Unlike the bin Laden raid, which was carried out without Pakistani knowledge, the Yemeni government was a participant. "The Yemeni government gave the U.S. authorities vital details of Awlaki's whereabouts in Shabwa days ago," said a senior Yemeni security official. The official said the Yemeni government had full knowledge of the attack ahead of the U.S. strike.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have been worried in recent weeks that the unrest in Yemen, and Mr. Saleh's increasingly weak position, had given a free hand to AQAP to plot fresh attacks against the West.
U.S. officials say finding Mr. Awlaki and other senior AQAP leaders has proven difficult. The U.S. lacks a robust intelligence network on the ground and the U.S.-born cleric is especially hard to find because, officials said, he ditched electronic communications in favor of hard-to-track couriers to relay messages.
The U.S. campaign in Yemen has been led by the U.S. military's Central Command, but the CIA has been providing intelligence and other support.
Mr. Awlaki rocketed to prominence since 2009 because of his role as Internet-based spiritual guide aiding the radicalization of a new generation of Islamist extremists.
Although not the head of AQAP, U.S. officials say Mr. Awlaki has assumed an operational leadership role in the terror group. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood Texas, corresponded with Mr. Awlaki before his attack.
The U.S. added Mr. Awlaki to the CIA's target list after AQAP's failed attempt a month later to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger airliner. Part of Mr. Awlaki's appeal, say U.S. officials and terrorism experts, is his ability to act as a bridge between the predominantly Arab leaders of al Qaeda and willing potential jihadists in the West.
Born in New Mexico, he preached at a mosque in Northern Virginia until 2002, when he left the U.S. to spend time building a following in the U.K., before returning to Yemen in 2004.
Yemen authorities, at the behest of the U.S. arrested him, but then released him in December 2007 saying they did not have enough evidence to hold him.
—Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.