CAIRO — A U.S.-born cleric who has encouraged Muslims to kill American soldiers called for the killing of U.S. civilians in his first video released by a Yemeni offshoot of al-Qaida, providing the most overt link yet between the radical preacher and the terror group.
Dressed in a white Yemeni robe, turban and with a traditional jambiyah dagger tucked into his waistband, Anwar Al-Awlaki used the 45-minute video posted Sunday 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."
"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, who was born in New Mexico and is believed to be hiding in his parents' native Yemen, has used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.
He has emerged as a prominent al-Qaida recruiter and has been tied by U.S. intelligence to the 9/11 hijackers, 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.
For U.S. officials, al-Awlaki 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.
Al-Awlaki's direct role in al-Qaida – if any – remains unclear. The U.S. says he is an active participant in the group, though members of his tribe have denied that.
However, Sunday's video provides the clearest link yet between the cleric and the terror group.
It was produced by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's media arm, which touted the recording as its first interview with al-Awlaki. It may also indicate al-Qaida is trying to seize upon al-Awlaki's recruiting prowess by featuring him in its videos.
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, who traveled to Yemen late last year, and U.S. investigators say Abdulmutallab told them 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."
Because of what U.S. officials view as al-Awlaki's growing role with al-Qaida, the Obama administration placed him on the CIA's list of targets for assassination – despite his American citizenship.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Sunday that the U.S. is "actively trying to find" al-Awlaki.
"The president will continue to take action directly at terrorists like Awlaki and keep our country safe from their murderous thugs," Gibbs said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Ali Mohammed al-Ansi, Yemen's national security chief and head of the president's office, said in remarks published Sunday in Yemen's ruling-party newspaper that the country's security forces will continue to pursue al-Awlaki until he turns himself in or he is arrested.
Yemen has indicated that if its security forces capture al-Awlaki, it wants to try the cleric on Yemeni soil.
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. He said he was moving from place to place under the protection of his tribe.
"As for the Americans, I will never surrender to them," al-Awlaki said. "If the Americans want me, let them come look for me. God is the protector."