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.
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.
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