In one drone strike, the U.S. eliminated two key elements of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Foreign Operations Bureau. Al Qaeda confirmed the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American AQ ideologue, and Samir Khan, an American AQ Internet propagandist. Here are my initial thoughts:
1- Hegghammer accurately articulated AQAP’s Foreign Operations Bureau and Awlaki’s role: In November 2010, Hegghammer wrote “The Case for Chasing al-Awlaki” which noted that-
“Awlaki is AQAP’s Head of Foreign Operations…Awlaki is most likely part of a small AQAP cell — the Foreign Operations Unit –which specializes in international operations and keeps a certain distance to the rest of the organization. We are probably dealing with a classic case of functional separation of tasks: While most AQAP fighters are busy fighting Yemeni security forces and attacking Western targets in Yemen, the Foreign Operations Unit lies low and plans international operations slowly and carefully. The unit likely counts no more than 10 people and hides in a different physical location from that of the top AQAP leadership. This is why Awlaki appears only on the margins of the radar of those who follow the day-to-day operations of AQAP proper.”
Awlaki and Khan were members of AQAP’s Foreign Operations Unit as they described in their own words in their magazine Inspire. Awlaki and Khan died together traveling separate from the larger AQAP organization as Hegghammer described.
2- Awlaki and Khan were dangerous strategically and yet a bit weak tactically: Awlaki designed strategically effective plots to strike fear in the U.S. Awlaki provided an American perspective for how to recruit Westerners via the Internet and operationally exploit U.S. security and psychological vulnerabilities. Khan knew how to market AQ propaganda via the Internet. These two were far more effective at recruiting Westerners with access to Western targets than previously hyped Western AQ members. CT pundits claimed years back that Adam Gadahn would bring in Western recruits but this never materialized. Ultimately, I think Awlaki and Khan’s tactical inexperience led to their deaths as I wonder….
3-Did the push to publish Inspire magazine volume number 7 bring Awlaki and Khan’s demise?: Awlaki and Khan’s commitment to publishing an almost monthly AQ journal in the end may have led to their demise. As any publishing company or university would probably tell you, issuing a monthly journal is a heavy burden (that’s why they do quarterly journals). Producing Inspire required transmission by courier at a minimum and ideally development electronically. All of these methods transmit signatures for targeting. So an operational security versus operational effectiveness conundrum arose for Awlaki and Khan. To be relevant, these two had to publish and preach via the Internet. To be safe in the presence of intense surveillance, Awlaki and Khan had to hunker down and minimize communication. I’ll be interested to hear if it’s ever explained why the U.S. regained Awlaki’s tail several weeks back.
4- Seems Awlaki lacked a good human sanctuary.: Good safe havens require both geographic/physical and human sanctuary. Bin Laden effectively hid for almost ten years because loyal human networks protected him; not caves. I guess that Awlaki didn’t have a good human sanctuary and was coughed up by either locals or maybe even AQAP internally. I don’t know this, but I imagine a trusted person at some level didn’t want Awlaki camping in Yemen anymore.
5- CT pundit double speak: Many CT pundits generally have one of three things to say about Awlaki’s death:
- Awlaki’s death will change nothing
- Awlaki’s message is eternal and will continue to inspire recruits to al Qaeda
- Awlaki was a nobody and never a threat
For the first, CT pundits that previously promoted Awlaki must assert that nothing will change. If CT pundits over emphasize AQ’s demise, they risk putting themselves out of a job.
For the second, CT pundits have preached the “AQ’s message will inspire recruits forever” since about 2002. However, recent history doesn’t support this argument. Bin Laden, prior to his death in 2011, inspired very few new recruits in recent years. By 2006-2007, Abu Masab al Zarqawi, an up and comer performing spectacular attacks in Iraq, provided the most inspiration to new AQ recruits and yet I’ve seen almost no evidence his message inspires significant recruitment today. By 2010-2011, Awlaki probably inspired the most recruits by participating in the only two viable attempts on the West in recent years. Yet, I suspect there will be only a couple fringe Western kids inspired by Awlaki in the next couple of years. Likewise, most AQ recruits come from the Middle East and North Africa. These youth were not nearly as inspired by Awlaki as Western recruits and now amidst the Arab Spring have a host of local leaders to follow as an alternative to AQ. Five years from now I expect Awlaki like Zarqawi will be just another blip in AQ history.
For the third, Awlaki was the last great hope for much of AQ. Yes, AQ and AQAP will go on and we must pursue them to their end. But no other AQ member (to include Ayman al-Zawahiri) has recently created much energy for AQ recruiting globally. After the continuous elimination of AQ leaders, Awlaki’s loss further hurts AQ’s future. I think these pundits in the NY Times miss the point:
“A dime-a-dozen cleric” was one response, by Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton professor who studies Yemen. Another: “I don’t think your average Middle Easterner knows who Anwar al-Awlaki is,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar of political Islam at Notre Dame University.
For Gregory Johnsen, I must ask, if Awlaki is “a dime-a-dozen” cleric, then name one other cleric who in the past two years has been involved in two nearly successful attacks on the U.S. homeland and the recruitment of more than a dozen Westerners to AQ.
For Emad Shahin, I think you miss the point. Eliminating Awlaki was not about winning the popular support of the Middle East. Eliminating Awlaki was about improving U.S. security and preventing Awlaki from building another plot against the U.S. homeland.