Of all the Islamic extremists sought by the United States in the post-Osama bin Laden world, Anwar al-Awlaki stood as a tantalizing symbol of an evolving homegrown threat at the start of the second decade of the war on terror.
Awlaki was American-born, educated at a Colorado university, and initially slipped through the FBI’s grasp in the chaotic year after the Sept. 11 attacks despite deep concerns he had become radicalized and might have had contacts with two of the al-Qaeda hijackers.
For years, his extremist Islamic preachings broadcast across the Internet from his safe haven in Yemen were inspiration for wannabe terrorists, especially those homegrown in the United States.
His connection to several terror recent plots—including an Army major’s shooting spree at a Texas military post and an attempted Christmas Day 2009 airline bombing—put Awlaki atop the U.S. terror target list. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta specifically cited Awlaki as among his top two priorities, along with new al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, back in July.
On Friday, in a remote region of Yemen, he was finally killed, delivering a crucial blow to al Qaeda’s increasingly influential regional arm in the country, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The exact circumstances of how Awlaki was killed remained fuzzy on Friday morning. But the Yemen military’s brief announcement bore enormous significance: the voice of America’s most influential homegrown preacher of terror was finally silenced.
Coupled with bin Laden’s killing in May and the capture and killing of several al Qaeda operational leaders in Pakistan in recent months, Awlaki’s death is a validation of the Obama administration’s strategy of targeting high-priority terrorism leaders through drone strikes and special forces military operations with allies.
The string of successes doesn’t eliminate the threat to U.S. shores, but it quickly has diminished the capabilities and leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe. And in Awlaki’s case, it also snuffed out one of the inspirations for Islamist extremists seeking to convert homegrown Americans to the cause.