When President Obama addressed the nation about the death of high-profile al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki Anwar al-Awlaki today, he said the drone strike that took out the U.S.-born radical removed the man who "took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans."
While al-Awlaki was not the trigger-man in any of the 19 terror operations to which he is linked, U.S. officials and terror experts said that his hand was visible in all of them -- whether by simply pushing the attackers over the violent edge or by personally guiding them through operations.
"There's no question that Anwar al-Awlaki was the modern day terrorist," said Seth Jones, a terror analyst at the RAND Corporation and U.S. government consultant. "He used a combination of involvement in operations... and an almost unparalleled use of social media -- YouTube, broader internet sites, Facebook, Twitter -- to get his propaganda messages out."
In one instance in particular, Jones said al-Awlaki was a hands-on player in the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up Northwest flight 253 with a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day in 2009 after Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen and met al-Awlaki.
"Al-Awlaki actually helped get him in a jihadi camp, helped him get access to the underwear bomb and then actually walked him through [it]," Jones said. "He wanted [Abdulmutallab] to wait to explode [the bomb] over American airspace."
Al-Awlaki also taught Abdulmutallab to avoid detection while traveling internationally before the doomed plot, Jones said.
"So there was actually direct operational-level and strategic-level guidance to the bomber himself," he said. "This is more than just recruitment."
In their remarks today, both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted al-Awlaki's direct involvement in the Christmas Day plot.
Other times, al-Awlaki appeared to be able to push potential recruits into action from thousands of miles away. A month before Adbulmutallab failed to blow up Northwest flight 253, prosecutors say U.S. Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire on a Texas Army base, killing 13 people and wounding another 30. Investigators later found Hasan had exchanged several emails with al-Awlaki in which al-Awlaki justified the planned killings.
In some cases, al-Awlaki did not have to speak directly to the recruit at all.
In July 2011, a Brooklyn man was convicted of planning to travel to the Middle East to join the jihad and kill U.S. soldiers there, according to the FBI. In the course of their investigation, federal officials found "the defendant had been radicalized, in part, by Internet speeches by Anwar al-Awlaki..."
"The tone, the subject, then his ability to push it out through multiple media made him really an unprecedented al Qaeda terrorist," Jones said.
Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen agreed, saying it was not in his operational skills, but his rhetoric that made al-Awlaki invaluable to the terror organization.
"What sort of an impact will [al-Awlaki's death] have on the so-called 'lone-wolf' terrorist?" Johnsen said. "That is, those individuals, those often English-speaking individuals living in the West who seem to be inspired, if not encouraged to carry out attacks by al-Awlaki. And that is where al-Awlaki was a unique voice and someone that a group like al Qaeda will have a difficult time replacing."