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Anwar al-Awlaki strike: why it's important, but not a death-blow for Al Qaeda

Anwar al-Awlaki was one of Al Qaeda's idea men – a propagandist who inspired youth to jihad. The drone attack that killed him is a 'big setback,' but it doesn't hurt Al Qaeda's capacity.

By Staff writer / September 30, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites last year. Yemen's Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday that the US-born al- Awlaki has been killed.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP/File

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Washington

The killing Friday in Yemen of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in an apparent US drone strike will fill the sails of those who insist the global terrorist organization is nearing its demise.

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But beyond the debate over whether Al Qaeda is a mortally wounded beast or a Hydra with still-potent force and a capacity for self-renewal is another question: What is the impact of systematically removing the idea men of what is essentially an ideology?

Eliminating Al Qaeda’s inspirational figures is important because it denies the movement its best communicators with potential recruits both near and far, many counterterrorism experts say. In the case of an al-Awlaki, they add, that means his demise is likely to have greater impact on Al Qaeda’s inspirational reach than on its prospects in the country where he was based.

“They’ve hit a great propagandist – and propaganda is important – so in that sense this is a big setback for Al Qaeda,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now an intelligence and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

On the other hand, Mr. al-Awlaki was less instrumental to the future of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Mr. Riedel says. So no one should expect this blow to mean much in Yemen, which he describes as a country “collapsing into civil war” – the kind of chaos Al Qaeda thrives on.

“He was not the head of AQAP, he wasn’t its deputy, and he wasn’t its bombmaker,” he says. “So while this was a good thing to accomplish, AQAP remains a growth industry, and this isn’t going to change that one iota.”

Since the US special forces raid into Pakistan in May that took out Osama bin Laden, a number of US officials and counterterrorism experts have speculated that Al Qaeda increasingly resembles a spent force.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said shortly after taking his job in July that the US is “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” Earlier this month, CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress that the loss for Al Qaeda of not just Mr. bin Laden but leaders like Atiyah Abdul Rahman (in August) had opened “an important window of vulnerability” for the terror organization.

Even counterterrorism experts who warn that Al Qaeda’s weakness is being overplayed – especially in a tumultuous Arab world – say that al-Awlaki’s death is significant, in part because of his influence outside the region.

“Where he had his major impact was in his ability to reach into disaffected and vulnerable communities in the West,” says Christopher Boucek, an expert in security challenges on the Arabian peninsula at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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