SAN'A, Yemen – A Yemeni judge ordered police Saturday to find a radical U.S.-born cleric "dead or alive" after the al-Qaida-linked preacher failed to appear at his trial for his role in the killing of foreigners.
Yemen is under heavy U.S. pressure to crack down on the country's al-Qaida offshoot after a scheme to send bombs through the mail in packages addressed to the U.S. was thwarted a week ago. The group known as l-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the plot on Friday.
The cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and is one of the most prominent English-language radical clerics. His sermons advocating jihad, or holy war, against the United States have influenced militants involved in several attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. soil.
Yemeni officials say he may have blessed the mail bomb plot, while not necessarily taking an active part in it.
The United States has already authorized the CIA to capture or kill al-Awlaki, who has also been linked to the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound plane in December 2009.
Al-Awlaki is thought to be hiding in the mountains of southern Yemen, enjoying the protection of family and his large tribe, while facing what some analysts describe as only a halfhearted effort by the Yemeni authorities to capture or kill him.
With his sudden trial and the arrest order, Yemen appears to be trying to show its American allies that it considers the cleric a serious threat.
Judge Mohsen Allwan ordered al-Awlaki to be "arrested by force, dead or alive" after he failed to appear for the start of his trial in Yemen on Tuesday. He was charged last week as a co-defendant in a surprise announcement as part of the trial of another man, Hisham Assem, who has been accused of killing a Frenchman in an Oct. 6 attack at an oil firm compound.
Al-Awlaki's name and that of a cousin, Othman al-Awlaki, were added as defendants in absentia.
According to the prosecution, Othman al-Awlaki had put Assem indirectly in e-mail contact with Anwar al-Awlaki.
In Tuesday's court session, Assem denied all charges and claimed he had been tortured in detention to make false confessions. He repeated those claims on Saturday.
U.S. investigators say Anwar al-Awlaki's sermons have been a key inspiration for a string of militants, including possibly the Pakistani man who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square this year, and that he had e-mail contacts with the Army psychiatrist accused of last year's killings at Fort Hood, Texas.
They say that since he returned to Yemen in 2006, al-Awlaki has moved beyond inspiration to take a role as an active operative in al-Qaida's affiliate there.