|US officials confirmed that a drone attack has missed Anwar al-Awlaki [EPA]
US officials have said that a US drone attack that killed two suspected al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen on Thursday was targeting US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, according to US media.
The Wall Street Journal newspaper and the CBS television network, citing Yemeni and US officials, said on Friday that Anwar al-Awlaki was not hit when a missile was fired at a car in southern Yemen on
"We were hoping it was him," a US official told CBS. There was no immediate comment from the White House on the reports.
Yemen's defence ministry confirmed the drone attack, which came three days after US commandos killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's chief.
Witnesses said they saw a missile fired by an aircraft hit the two brothers in the province of Shabwa, where al-Qaeda is well entrenched. The men died instantly.
Thursday's raid in Yemen's Shabwa, a province known to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda, is the first reported US targeting of other key figures in the international network after a stealthy commando raid killed bin Laden inside Pakistan Monday.
A source from Awlaki's tribe in Shabwa told the AFP news agency on Saturday that the religious leader was travelling with a Saudi al-Qaeda 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," the source, who is linked to the local administration in the region where Awlaki's tribe has considerable influence, said.
The drone attack hit another car in which two local al-Qaeda members, both brothers, were travelling. It killed them and wounded a third.
It was not immediately clear if Awlaki was targeted following information the US had said it gathered from bin Laden's million-dollar villa near the Pakistan capital Islamabad.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Washington DC on Saturday, Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said the attempt against Awlaki comes in the context of a possible escalation by al-Qaeda as it struggles to remain relevant.
"What you can imagine is that the efforts will not stop with the killing of bin Laden. It's assumed that al-Qaeda is going to try even harder right now, not only to avenge bin Laden, but also to make a statement about the fact that they're still in existence and able to operate," he said.
He said that al-Qaeda is now likely to target Arab or Muslim leaders who are seen to be allies of the US, rather than hitting directly at US interests.
Saleh "undoubtedly" is going to be one of those unpopular leaders targeted, which is one reason the US is going to accelerate its efforts against al-Qaeda's leadership in the wake of the killing of bin Laden, Telhami said.
"Al-Qaeda is going to try to find a way to deal with the Arab revolutions. It hasn't been able to figure out how to deal with it, because on the one hand, they're happy to see that they're targeting their enemies, but on the other hand, the success of peaceful revolutions is their nightmare," he said.
Fort Hood connection
Thursday's incident was 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 Awlaki 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 the Obama's administration had deployed unmanned Predator drones in Yemen to hunt for al-Qaeda operatives.