The assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and Al Qaeda recruiter in Yemen, will be heralded as a major triumph in the US today. But it has very little to do with Yemen's own problems.
SITE Intelligence Group/AP
Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher who has emerged in recent years as a recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed at around 10:00 local time in Yemen this morning, according to Yemen and unnamed US officials.
In a brief statement, Yemen's foreign ministry said Awlaki was killed five miles outside of Kashef, in al-Jawf province, about 80 miles east of Sanaa, the capital. Yemen didn't say who carried out the attack, but early indications are that Awlaki was killed in an airstrike, which would almost certainly point to the US. Reuters reports that an unidentified US official confirmed the death.
The Obama administration, in concert with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been running an intense air campaign against Islamist militants in Yemen for the past year, and Yemen has negligible air assets of its own. The US also quickly said it was "fairly certain" that Awlaki is dead, implying some inside knowledge of the situation. The US had tried and failed to kill Awlaki with drone strikes in the past.
Awlaki would appear to be the first US citizen to fall at the hands of a targeted killing from the government since the "global war on terror" started 10 years ago. He became a particular target for the US after Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan murdered 12 of his comrades in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009. Major Hassan had been in email contact with Awlaki, and the preacher has been cited as an inspiration for Hassan's attack. US officials said Awlaki had also met with failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who sought to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December of 2009.
The importance of Awlaki to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is debatable. The group itself has become of particular concern to the US, particularly after it took credit for smuggling two bombs onto cargo planes bound from Yemen to the US in October 2010. The bombs were found and defused on a layover in the UK.
But Awlaki's main value has been in propaganda (thanks in part to the publicity created by America's public focus on him) and in his presumed ability to reach out to an English-speaking Muslim audience – individuals who, Washington worries, are better able to blend into the communities they aimed to attack. In recent years, he's been the driving force behind the Al Qaeda's English-language magazine "Inspire."
In testimony before Congress in February, director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter said "I actually consider al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Awlaki as a leader within that organization, probably the most significant risk to the US homeland. I'm hesitant to rank them too carefully – but certainly up there." As for Awlaki himself, Leiter said: "He certainly is the most well-known English speaking ideologue who is speaking directly to folks here in the homeland. There are several others who we're concerned with, but I think Awlaki probably does have the greatest audience on the Internet and the like."
In his years as a preacher in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., he also crossed paths with other militants. The 9/11 Commission report released in 2004 said he had met two of the 9/11 hijackers at his mosque in Virginia. He was also courted by US officials; on at least one occasion, he was brought in to speak at the Pentagon.
Awlaki left the US in 2002 and after some time in London, arrived in Yemen in 2004. His now defunct website (taken down after the Fort Hood attack) claimed he was working at the time as a lecturer in Islam at the University of Sanaa.
It also made clear why US officials consider him a danger. It hosted an article of his, "The 44 Ways To Support Jihad," that urged Muslims to carry out violence against the "infidels."
Before his site was taken down, he praised Hassan. "The Muslim organizations in America came out in a pitiful chorus condemning Nidal’s operation," he wrote. "Nidal has killed soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to kill Muslims. The American Muslims who condemned his actions have committed treason against the Muslim Ummah and have fallen into hypocrisy."
For Yemen itself, a country in a simmering civil war that saw President Saleh almost assassinated in June (he returned home last week after three months of convalescing in Saudi Arabia) Awlaki's death is largely irrelevant. Popular demands for Saleh's ouster will continue, as will low level fighting.
Writing for the Council of Foreign Relations earlier this month, Princeton's Gregory Johnsen outlined the dire situation in the country. "Lined up against Salih and his heirs is a creaky alliance of former foes and defected generals who agree on only one single point: Salih can [no] longer be president. Nearly half of the regular army is in rebellion under the command of Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a general from Salih’s own tribe. But this is much more than a two-sided fight between old comrades-in-arms. Various militia groups have taken advantage of the fracturing of state authority to further their own sectarian agendas," he wrote.
As for AQAP, Johnsen argued that increased drone attacks are insufficient to cripple the group in the large portions of Yemen that are mostly outside of central government control. "Airpower alone is not enough to defeat AQAP... Even more worrisome, this is al-Qaeda’s second incarnation in the country. The gains of 2002 and 2003 have been forfeited by years of neglect when U.S. policy bounced from one crisis to the next without an overarching structure."
It seems likely that Saleh will seek to place a feather in his cap over the killing of Awlaki. He's been strongly supported by Saudi Arabia, but the US has been more coy, continuing to work together in targeting militants but well aware of the popular demands for political change in the country.
Saleh has frequently sought to position his enemies as "Al Qaeda" in recent years, and himself as the only bulwark against the group. Last week, for instance, he told the Washington Post and Time Magazine that: "We are pressurized by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know to where the power is going to go. It is going to Al Qaeda."