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Is Anwar al-Awlaki's importance to Al Qaeda overstated?

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“Anwar al-Awlaki is not the leader of AQAP, he’s not the spiritual head, and he's not the main ideologue. He's not any of these things that are often put out in the media,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University. “If there's one name that people in the West know, it’s Anwar al-Awlaki … but that doesn’t make him the most important player in AQAP, and I would argue that if the US were to kill him, AQAP would continue without missing a beat.”

First US strike since 2002

Awlaki may not be a key player in Al Qaeda’s hierarchy, but his role in the organization is nevertheless unique. Having spent much of his life in the US, Awlaki has been a leading voice bringing extremist ideology to the English-speaking world. Technologically adept, he has disseminated Al Qaeda dogma via Facebook, YouTube, and AQAP’s English-language publication, Inspire.

Yemen, one of the most conservative countries in the Islamic world, has a rugged landscape, weak central government, and devastating poverty that have combined to create fertile ground for extremist ideology.

On May 5, drone strikes in the southern province of Shabwa, a suspected haven of Al Qaeda militants, killed two brothers alleged to be mid-level operatives in Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, US and Yemeni officials confirmed that the strike, the first carried out by US drones in Yemen since 2002, was an attempt to assassinate Awlaki.

Protesters upset by West's shift in focus to Al Qaeda

The renewed focus on Yemeni extremism following Bin Laden’s death has been considered a blow to demonstrators calling for the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The president, who has been in power for 32 years, was on the brink of tendering his resignation under a Gulf-sponsored initiative that would have seen him transfer power in 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. But the mercurial leader now appears to have backed out of the deal.

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