As a well-known scholar and English-speaking orator, Anwar al Awlaki was a big deal for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization he represented in Yemen. His death on Friday, now a high-profile international news story, was also significant as his group lost a powerful asset on the public stage.
But, according to regional experts, the killing of Awlaki just scratches the surface of the problems in Yemen and the threat of terrorism worldwide.
An American drone missile strike reportedly killed Awlaki, an American-born U.S. citizen, in Yemen on Friday. His global visibility compared to others in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has put Awlaki's death in the spotlight and gives the United States a major victory in the ongoing fight against terror networks worldwide.
Nevertheless, with the government of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the verge of collapse, Americans need to consider a broader strategy, some experts say, to minimize the threat of Yemen-based terrorists. "It's a counterterrorism success for the United States and Yemeni and global counterterrorism forces," says Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he adds, "it certainly does little to change the relationship between U.S. and Yemen, and more importantly does little to change the chaotic situation that currently exists in Yemen that goes across an array of issues."
Awlaki has long been targeted by both Americans and Yemenis, especially because of his alleged ties to planned attacks on U.S. soil, like the attempted Christmas plane bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009. As a prolific and outspoken cleric, potential English-speaking radicals, like Abdulmutallab and Fort Hood shooter U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, turned to him for inspiration or advice.
In a press conference Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney asserted that Awlaki had been involved with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's operational activities. However, according to Nelson, his real selling point in the terrorist community, and especially within his own group in Yemen, was his background in America and his ability to reach out to vulnerable individuals in the West. "Al Qaeda's not short of operatives, and they're not short of clerics, but they are short of individuals who possess the cultural duality that Awlaki did," Nelson says.
As a spokesman, Awlaki did have the unique power, similar to the late Osama bin Laden, to spread al Qaeda's ideology globally, according to Philip Mudd, former senior intelligence adviser at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and senior global adviser for Oxford Analytica, an international analysis firm. Awlaki was a one-of-a-kind element in the Yemen-based terrorist organization, which has posed more of a threat to the American homeland in recent years than other similar groups worldwide, Mudd says. But the threat that he posed didn't die with him. "It's right to say these people represent leadership that cannot be replaced," he says. "It's not right to say that therefore means that immediately the threat to the United States is diminished, and that's because their message is spread already."
Although previous attempts to kill him had failed, the successful airstrike against him on Friday was a testament to the capabilities of both countries' counterterrorism forces and their ability to coordinate, even in the face of large-scale violence and protests around Yemen, says Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations. More importantly, he says, the success of the mission shows that the United States forces can carry out such an attack without working directly with Saleh, who returned to Yemen just last week after an attack on his compound in June sent him to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. "There's no evidence that Saleh's departure harmed the United States' ability with the people that work in the elite special operations forces and the intelligence forces of Yemen—it didn't constrain that," he says.