The death of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki marks the end of an unlikely saga in which an American-born man became one of the U.S.’s most-wanted terrorists for his role as a jihadist recruiter in the West.

Yemen’s defense ministry Friday said the 40-year-old Mr. Awlaki had been killed in the country. He was on the U.S. kill-or-capture list in Yemen and has been accused of being involved in several recent acts of terrorism in the U.S. A U.S. official confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was killed Friday.

This October 2008 file photo by Muhammad ud-Deen shows Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

Known for his fiery Islamist sermons and flawless English, he has been linked to suspects in both a 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting spree that killed 13 people and the botched bombing of a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day in 2009. U.S. officials have said he is connected to the Yemen-based terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. and other targets.

Through popular online lectures, Mr. Awlaki long encouraged a “lone-wolf” strategy, calling on followers to seize opportunities to attack where opportunities arose rather than work in cells, in order to increase chances of effectiveness.

“He was probably the most articulate English-language jihadist recruiter out there,” said Ghaffar Hussain, an analyst at the London-based think tank Quilliam Foundation. If Mr. Awlaki is dead, it could have a significant dampening impact on “domestic radicalization in British and American societies,” he said.

Mr. Hussain added that it will likely have less significance, however, for the organization of AQAP, as Mr. Awlaki wasn’t an experienced jihadist planner or fighter. “He’s a recruiter, not an operational guy,” said Mr. Hussain.

Mr. Awlaki symbolized the way terror threats have evolved to come from not just overseas terrorists, but also from homegrown extremists who “self-radicalize” based on what they read online and elsewhere.

The cleric, who was sophisticated in his use of online lectures and other propaganda, also highlighted the increasing role technology is playing in the spread of extremist ideas. He disseminated lectures online and was a driving force behind the English-language magazine Inspire.

“The Internet has become a facilitator—even an accelerant—for terrorist and criminal activity,” said Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a speech last year. A decade ago, Mr. Awlaki “would have operated in relative obscurity. Today, on the Internet, he has unlimited reach to individuals around the world, including those here at home.”

A U.S. citizen, Mr. Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents while his father was on a diplomatic posting from Yemen. Mr. Awlaki spent some of his childhood in Yemen but returned to study in the U.S., where he obtained an engineering degree from Colorado State University.

He began preaching in the mid-1990s at the university, where he would occasionally deliver sermons at the Fort Collins Islamic Center, according to a report about Mr. Awlaki titled “As American As Apple Pie” by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.

In 1996, he moved to San Diego and began to attract interest from counter-terrorism authorities. It is there he is believed to have first come into contact with two of the future September 11, 2001 attackers, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. In January 2001, he moved to take a post as imam in a mosque in Falls Church, Va., where he met another of the future hijackers.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Mr. Awlaki left the U.S. He later claimed that was due to what he considered to be the persecution of Muslims in the U.S., according to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow and author of the report.

Mr. Awlaki spent a couple of years in the U.K. and his lectures became more politically charged. In addition to focusing on religious texts, he addressed political issues such as Palestine and jihad and talked about how Muslims should act in daily life. He drew large crowds as his popularity grew. In 2002, he electrified a room of more than 2,500 people at a conference organized by U.K. Islamic group JIMAS in the city of Leicester, according to the organizer.

“People always loved him at any event, whether it was a conference, a mosque or private circle,” said M. Manwar Ali, the U.K.-based cleric and chief executive of JIMAS, who brought Mr. Awlaki to Leicester for the 2002 conference and sponsored a number of other events with Mr. Awlaki in the subsequent year.

Speaking in an interview in January 2010, Mr. Ali described the reasons behind Mr. Awlaki’s initial magnetism: “He quotes from the scriptures, he speaks Arabic, he’s pious on the face of it and he’s very friendly and down to earth. He gives you gifts and lets you sit by him. He’s a likeable person—and he spoke on topics the youth wanted to hear about.”

JIMAS later officially denounced the cleric and stopped distributing his speeches online after Mr. Awlaki publicly supported the Fort Hood shooting.

By early 2004, Mr. Awlaki had moved to Yemen, where he was arrested and imprisoned two years later by Yemeni authorities on charges related to kidnapping for ransom and being involved in an al Qaeda plot to kidnap a U.S. official. After his release in 2007, he went into hiding, according to U.S. authorities.

Terror specialists say his rhetoric became more extreme. In 2005, he produced a translation of an Arabic text called “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” in which he justified violent jihad in the West.

In a 2009 lecture, circulated widely online, Mr. Awlaki says of people in the West: “Do not trust them.” He added: “They are plotting to kill this religion.”

That year, he inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, who went on the shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas. He also helped prepare 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, according to U.S. authorities. The investigation of that case helped elevate the U.S. government’s view of Mr. Awlaki from radical religious figure to terrorist leader, U.S. officials have said.

And early this year, a U.K. jury found a former British Airways PLC software engineer guilty of using his job to prepare terrorist acts and plotting with Mr. Awlaki to do so. Prosecutors charged Rajib Karim, a Bangladeshi national, with what they called a “chilling plan” to use his job at the airline to blow up a passenger plane. Several of the counts he was convicted of related to his communications with Mr. Awlaki, including providing information to the cleric with the intention of assisting an attack on BA’s computer system or causing an explosion on an aircraft.

In encrypted computer messages, Mr. Karim told the cleric that his access to BA’s computers could disrupt the company’s website, causing millions of pounds in losses. Mr. Karim also told the cleric he had access to information about airport security procedures, offered to enroll as cabin crew, and discussed the possibility of helping ship a “package” on board a U.S.-bound plane, according to the prosecution. “The evidence showed that he was plotting with the cleric to use his job at BA to kill hundreds of innocent people,” a U.K. prosecutor said during
the trial.

By Cassel Bryan-Low and Paul Sonne

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