After nearly two years, the U.S. government has formally claimed responsibility and acknowledged Wednesday that it targeted and killed American citizen and al Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone attack in Yemen in September 2011.

The death of al-Awlaki, a native of New Mexico, was reported everywhere at the time, but the U.S. government did not confirm or deny that it had a role in the al Qaeda militant’s death until Wednesday. In a letter sent to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and a number of other congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric Holder said al-Awlaki and three other American citizens were killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, including al-Awlaki’s son. The letter, which can be viewed below, was originally obtained by The New York Times.

“Since 2009, the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi,” the attorney general wrote. “The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period: Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi,’ and Jude Kenan Mohammed. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.”

Holder said President Barack Obama “directed me to disclose certain information that until now has been properly classified.” The letter pre-empted the president's planned speech on drones and al Qaeda for Thursday in Washington.

The drone strike that killed al-Awlaki was seen as controversial on both sides of the political spectrum, with Obama administration critics saying he was entitled to due process as an American citizen. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has been the most outspoken lawmaker on the drone issue, staging a daylong Senate filibuster to dramatize his concerns about the possibility of the government using drones to target American citizens on U.S. soil.

Holder’s letter did not address the circumstances of Mohammed or Khan’s death, but it did go into detail on why the administration approved a drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki.

The attorney general said al-Awlaki, a major figure in al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen, plotted to kill Americans and inspired Muslims to commit terrorist acts. Holder added that al-Awlaki provided support to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” who failed in his attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner.

Al-Awlaki “was not just a senior leader of [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] – he was the group’s chief of external operations, intimately involved in detailed planning and putting in place plots against U.S. persons,” Holder wrote. “In this role, al-Aulaqi made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives.”

“[I]t was not just al-Aulaqi’s words [emphasis original] that led the United States to act against him . … Rather, it was al-Aulaqi’s actions [emphasis original] – and, in particular, his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland – that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.”

Read the full text of the letter below:

Holder on Anwar Al-Awlaki