US-Yemeni cleric and terror suspect Anwar al-Awlaqi narrowly escaped a US drone attack last week according to a tribal source.
The attack came just three days after American commandos killed Al-Qai’da chief Osama bin Laden.
Thursday’s strike in Yemen’s Shabwa province, a stronghold of Al-Qaida, is the first reported American targeting of other key figures in the terror network after a stealthy commando raid killed bin Laden inside Pakistan on Monday.
A source from Awlaqi’s tribe in Shabwa province east of Sanaa told AFP the cleric was travelling with a Saudi Al-Qai’da member when they were targeted by a US drone strike.
The car was slightly damaged but the two men escaped unharmed.
“Their car had minor damage, but they were able to proceed in another car,” said the source who is linked to the local administration in the region where Awlaqi’s tribe has considerable influence.
The drone attack hit another car in which two local Qaeda members, both brothers, were travelling. It killed them and wounded a third.
It was not immediately clear if Awlaqi was targeted following information the US had said it gathered from Osama bin Laden’s million-dollar villa near the Pakistan capital Islamabad.
Awlaqi, an American citizen who remains at large in Yemen, is suspected of being a leader of Al-Qai’da in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and of instigating a string of attacks against the United States.
Thursday’s targeting was also the first known attempt to get him since Yemeni forces tried to kill him in an air raid in December 2009 in Shabwa, but failed despite killing 34 others.
The US has also accused Awlaqi of having links with Major Nidal Hasan who is suspected of shooting dead 13 people at Fort Hood military base in Texas in November 2009.
The Yemeni defence ministry has confirmed the killing of two brothers on Thursday, but did not elaborate on the circumstances of their deaths. Security sources identified them as Abdullah and Mubarak al-Harad.
Witnesses said they saw a missile fired by an aircraft hit the two brothers, who died instantly.
The Washington Post reported in November that President Barack Obama’s administration had deployed unmanned Predator drones in Yemen to hunt for Al-Qai’da operatives.
Yemen has come under intense pressure to crack down on AQAP since a Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up a US airliner that was claimed by the group.
The Saudi and Yemeni Al-Qaeda branches merged in January 2009 to form the Yemen-based AQAP.
A local security official said meanwhile that Al-Qai’da fighters raided a farm owned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in south Yemen today, sparking a firefight in which one jihadist was killed and two wounded.
The clash occurred at dawn on the farm at Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province which is also a hotbed of Al-Qai’da activity, the security official told AFP.
He said armed men had also attacked a riot police post, an army camp and a telecommunications building in Zinjibar with mortars overnight, but caused no casualties.
Washington has expressed fears that Al-Qai’da could take advantage of a prolonged political crisis in Yemen, where Saleh has faced mass protests since late January calling for him to step down.
Saleh, who is clinging to power, has been a close US ally in Washington’s fight against Al-Qaeda. Political violence has claimed the lives of 150 people since the start of this year.