The death of Anwar al-Awlaki is a setback—but the group’s Yemen branch still has its leaders intact, and the country’s political mess will still give them shelter, says ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel. Plus, more breaking updates on Awlaki.
The death of Anwar al-Awlaki is a significant setback for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula but far from a fatal blow. Nor does his demise change the dynamics in Yemen which is sliding into a civil war that benefits al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Awlaki’s greatest asset was his ability to communicate to both English and Arabic speaking audiences the message of the global jihad. His sermons inspired many to “join the caravan” of Islamic extremism both in the West and Arabia. He has been a prolific writer and speaker for over a decade. The most recent edition of AQAP’s English language web magazine, Inspire, which was released this week promised that Awlaki would soon have a new message.
Ominously this yet-to-be-seen message is entitled “targeting the population of countries that are at war with the Muslims” and the preview shows a picture of a large train station filled with commuters. If he is dead, al Qaeda will doubtless release this last testament with his martyrdom memorial. His death will remove a major propaganda figure and a rising star in al Qaeda’s world.
Awlaki was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1971 while his father was a Fulbright scholar studying agriculture at New Mexico State University. His childhood was split between the U.S. and Yemen, then he graduated from Colorado State University. He spent one college summer fighting in Afghanistan with the mujahedin, the same battlefield where Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri earned their jihadist credentials.
He is always been an elusive figure. As a preacher in mosques in San Diego, California, and Falls Church, Virginia, in 2000 and 2001 he had repeated contacts with three of the 19 hijackers before 9/11, but the FBI did not link him to the attack. His phone number was found in the Hamburg, Germany apartment of Ramzi bin al Shibh, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attack. He may have been a central player in the events of September 11th 2001, but we will probably never know. In 2002 he fled to the U.K. and then in 2004 toYemen and was arrested in 2006 on kidnapping charges.
His position in AQAP has been elusive as well. Some claim he served as one of the group’s operational planners after being released from prison in 2007; others say he was only a propaganda figure. He was in email contact with Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood soldier who killed 13 of his fellow soldiers on November 5, 2009, but the U.S. Army has still not released the 18 emails found on Hasan’s laptop. Awlaki later told Yemeni journalists that he blessed Nidal’s decision to kill as jihad.
He may have recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up Northwest Airlines 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb provided by AQAP. Awlaki said the Nigerian was one of his students in Yemen in a 2010 message in which he also warned Americans that “nine years after 9/11, nine years of spending $40 billion on security systems and nine years of beefing up you security and you are still unsafe even in the holiest and most sacred of day to you, Christmas.” Many other terrorists including the Times Square bomber Faysal Shahzad say Awlaki’s sermons and articles inspired their actions.
But he was not the commander or deputy commander of AQAP. Those roles are held by Yemenis and Saudis who have been fighting for years in the Arabian Peninsula and who are the most important operational leaders of the group. Nor was he the bomb maker who built Abdulmuttalab’s miniature bomb and the parcel bombs sent to blow up postal jets over Chicago last October. The evil genius who builds these devices is a Saudi who is teaching a cohort of recruits in AQAP camps in Yemen how to build more bombs. In short AQAP’s key players are still at large and very dangerous.
Yemen is falling apart. The country is fragmenting into hostile blocks. President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who returned from hospital in Saudi Arabia last week after almost being assassinated last June, will probably point to Awlaki’s death as evidence his regime can still help fight terror and should survive. We should not fall for this line.
In fact the longer Saleh tries to hold on to power the more chaotic Yemen is likely to get. Saleh and his sons and nephews control only parts of the military; much of the rest has mutinied and is fighting gun battles every day with the loyalists in Sanaa and other cities. The far north of the country has been over run by Shia rebels who have been fighting Saleh for years. Several southern towns have been occupied by AQAP. The port city of Aden is wracked by car bombs and assassination plots. Pro-democracy demonstrators are murdered by Saleh’s goons and snipers.
The more broken Yemen becomes the more AQAP benefits because the break down in law and order allows it to operate and recruit more easily. Saleh is only part of the problem in Yemen, the country is running out of water and oil and is over populated, but his departure is essential to starting to salvage an increasingly desperate situation. Awlaki may be dead but AQAP is very much alive.