The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born terrorist working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is a victory in the fight against international terrorist groups targeting the United States. Much remains unclear about how Awlaki was killed but it looks like a U.S. airstrike from a jet or drone aircraft. Based on Awlaki’s direct connection to terrorists that attacked the United States, he falls under the scope of the law Congress passed governing the military fight against international terrorism. That makes him a legitimate military target.
The significance of his death for AQAP or on Yemen-based terrorism, however, should not be overstated. It’s true that Awlaki was among the most influential international terrorists adept at spreading the movement using English. But he was not even the most powerful figure in his own terrorist group let alone a potential successor to the leadership role of Osama bin Laden. And his death will have virtually no impact on the AQAP’s strength in Yemen.
So while this is a clear win for the U.S.-led air campaign against AQAP, that’s the most Awlaki’s death can accomplish. And it is woefully inadequate to address the medium- and long-term challenges of AQAP in the region or the multiple ongoing crises facing the Yemeni people.
The story on Anwar al-Awlaki is as follows. He was born in New Mexico and was a U.S. citizen. But he spent much of his early life in Yemen. By 2000 Awlaki had returned to the United States and was an imam at a San Diego mosque visited by 9/11 hijackers Nawaf a Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. When Hazmi moved across the country to Washington, D.C., in 2001 as the attacks approached, he and another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour, again connected with Awlaki—this time at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.
The 9/11 Commission Report documents the FBI’s suspicion that Awlaki was a facilitator for the hijackers: “[S]ome FBI investigators doubt [Eyad al] Rababah’s story. Some agents suspect that Aulaqi (Awlaki) may have tasked Rababah to help Hamzi and Hanjour. We share that suspicion, given the remarkable coincidence of Aulaqi’s prior relationship with Hazmi.”
Awlaki subsequently fled the United States and returned to Yemen, where he began inspiring would-be terrorists in the West to attack the United States or other Western targets. He was in email communication with Maj. Nadal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Ft. Hood shootings that killed 13 Americans. He is also directly connected to Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalab and the failed Christmas Day attempt to destroy a Detroit-bound airplane by AQAP. And he reportedly inspired Faisal al-Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber. AQAP launched another failed attack using explosives hidden in toner cartridges bound for the U.S. aboard freight aircraft.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress enacted the Authorization to Use Military Force, which gave the president the power:
… to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
From what we now know about his subsequent actions, it strains credulity to believe that Awlaki’s connection to those three 9/11 hijackers while they were in the United States was merely coincidental. Awlaki has clearly been involved in attacks on the United States since 9/11 and continuously threatens to do so in the future.
The airstrike targeting Awlaki was not an extrajudicial execution for his role in the 9/11 attacks. It was an airstrike that resulted in the death of a legitimate military target based on the power Congress granted the president in the 2001 AUMF. There are reasonable questions raised about the interpretation of the 2001 AUMF when targeting or detaining suspected terrorists. But this instance does not happen to be one of them.
The killing of Awlaki, and the possibility that another American, Samir Khan, was also killed in the same strike, is a genuine victory. Khan is believed to be the creator of the online English-language magazine Inspire and was a key figure in the media and propaganda efforts of international terrorists. The loss of Awlaki and Khan together represents a major setback for international terrorism’s inspirational and propaganda activities using English in the West.
Still, we shouldn’t get as carried away as Rep. Peter King (R-NY) does when he claims that “[i]n many ways, Awlaki was, operationally, more important than Bin Laden. “
That’s ridiculous. Awlaki was able to reach an audience and inspire would-be terrorists in the West because he often delivered video sermons or writings in English. But he was no bin Laden. In fact, U.S. officials unintentionally served as Awlaki’s biggest propaganda office by constantly inflating his importance within AQAP and international terrorism.
Princeton University Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote today of Awlaki’s death that “Nasir al-Wihayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi and so on are much more important to the continued existence of AQAP than was Awlaki. I don’t think Awlaki’s death will in any way be debilitating for the organization.”
Further, the use of airstrikes against terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere are a useful counterterrorism tool but they are not sufficient to defeat terrorism on their own and fall far short of the necessary action in Yemen. The United States has reportedly increased its use of airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen since the political crisis gripping that fractured country has diverted the attention of Yemen’s security forces to regime survival. But at best this is a temporary solution. At worst it could exacerbate the problem of AQAP in Yemen if U.S. officials are further seduced by the transitory success of airstrikes.
What’s more, activities such as airstrikes in Yemen at the exclusion of virtually any other American footprint only further convince the Yemeni people that our only objective is to protect U.S. interests at the expense of issues that legitimately rank much higher on their priority list than targeting AQAP.
The death of Anwar al-Awlaki does remove a terrorist intent on directing attacks on the United States who could inspire a new audience in the West to take up his call because he could speak and write in English. But while he may be among the most identifiable international terrorists, he was not even the most powerful figure in his own terrorist group. Meanwhile, AQAP will certainly remain a major threat to Yemen, its neighbors in the region, and the United States. U.S. airstrikes in Yemen weaken AQAP, but only a broader approach to Yemen that addresses the problems that more directly affect the everyday lives of Yemenis will help that country achieve a more stable and sustainable future.
Ken Gude is the Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program at American Progress.