The situation in Yemen remains very unstable as reports surface of continued state-sponsored violence against antigovernment protesters. Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed and thousands more injured in the past few months, according to the United Nations. Last week, the U.N. Security Council expressed "grave concern at the continued serious deterioration of the economic and humanitarian situation in Yemen," and also warned against "the worsening security situation, including the threat from Al-Qaida in parts of Yemen."
Given the rocky circumstances surrounding Yemen's immediate future and the stability of Saleh's rule, the killing of Awlaki came at a good time, says Chris Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based foreign policy research group. Experts point out that Saleh's been a mediocre partner in fighting terrorism within Yemen's borders and has at least been open to allowing U.S. drone attacks against targets like Awlaki in recent years. However, if or when Saleh forfeits his power, there's no telling whether his successors will follow suit. "The American government must think we need to get what we can from the guys we know because we don't know what's going to come next," he says.
Even if counterterrorism operations continue to be successful—after all, while Awlaki may have been one of the most high-profile figures killed, U.S. and Yemeni forces have also targeted other leaders successfully—the strength of terrorist groups like al Qaeda may depend on the durability of Yemen's government. The Obama administration also needs to be aware of the humanitarian needs that exist there, Boucek says, since a fallen government could open the "undergovernment" space for terrorism. "Just focusing on killing bad guys doesn't make Yemen a better place. It doesn't deal with the real, real problems in Yemen," he says.
As for Awlaki, although any of his potential operational capabilities were lost with his death, there's still a possibility that his legacy as an inspirational jihad leader could continue, says Zenko. He was able to reach many of his followers via the Internet, a presence that won't be easily wiped away.