Sources say Awlaki was added to the Pentagon's "kill or capture" list earlier this year after it was determined that the cleric had morphed from a rhetorician into an "operational" terrorist leader. The criteria for making such determinations and the evidence for it have not been made public. Moreover, the government doesn't officially acknowledge even the existence of either a kill list or the campaign of drone strikes used against those on it. But several senior intelligence officials say that Awlaki was added to the list after the interrogation of the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, revealed the cleric's complicity in that affair.
The U.S. government's official position is that Awlaki is a leader in the Yemen-based group. "There is no doubt that Awlaki is a senior figure in AQAP. He is now in their top leadership ranks with a role that focuses on external operations plotting," says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But that view is not universally shared. "Despite his public reputation, he's actually a very mid-level guy in the [AQAP] organization," says Princeton University's Gregory Johnsen, a leading expert on Yemen. Adds a U.S. intelligence official who studies Islamic radicals: "Awlaki is part of AQAP in name only. He has no real command, power, or tactical input."
Kohlmann describes Awlaki as more of an "outside consultant" who hasn't sworn an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden and appears to value his autonomy from the official AQAP leadership structure. As evidence, Kohlmann points to the video Awlaki released, which conspicuously lacked the imprimatur of the AQAP media wing, as indicative of Awlaki's autonomy. A Yemeni official concurs with this assessment of the latest video, adding that "Awlaki likes to have it both ways, as a religious leader when it suits him, and as a 'mastermind' when it suits him. He simply likes the attention."
Awlaki is a dangerous "senior leader adjunct," says Juan Zuarte, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration. "He is a sort of Pied Piper for western recruits, an all-purpose inspirational voice for self-starters," Zuarte says. "But recently he has also played a more direct operational role, particularly with plots aimed at the West."
Despite the debate over his role in AQAP, the United States still is making efforts to both kill Awlaki and to neutralize his message, according to sources. Those efforts are both controversial and emblematic of the larger conundrums plaguing the war on terrorism. Yemen doesn't have the capabilities to catch Awlaki, and attempts by the United States and Yemen to kill him have angered locals, threatening the regime even further. "For every innocent mother and child killed in a raid against [AQAP]," one Yemeni official says, "there may be many people in the extended families or tribes of the fallen that will now side with AQAP in the future."
Yemen has a mixed record of combating AQAP and is struggling with a host of internal problems, including two separate domestic insurgencies. In the past, these have taken precedence over combating terrorism. But events like the recent attempted mail bombings and continued U.S. pressure on the Yemeni government, not to mention a U.S. aid package that jumped from $11 million in 2006 to $70 million last year, has led to action.
Yemeni forces backed by U.S. intelligence and firepower have launched dozens of raids and airstrikes against AQAP targets in the country over the past year and are thought to have killed half a dozen of the group's leaders, according to officials.
But not all operations have been successful; indeed, they sometimes backfire badly. Last December, U.S. intelligence officials crowed anonymously in the Washington Post that Awlaki had been killed in a raid, calling it a "decapitating strike." The attack, which Amnesty International says included the use of U.S.-made cruise missiles containing cluster bombs, killed 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, according to an investigation by the Yemeni parliament. It also killed al Qaeda fighters, but it was the civilian death toll that enraged the Yemeni people. Contrary to early reports, Awlaki escaped the attack unscathed. The U.S. government, for its part, has acknowledged no formal role in the attack.