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.
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Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and raised in Yemen before returning to America from 1991 to 2002 to get a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's in education. He also served as a Muslim imam in California and Virginia.Skip to next paragraph
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After leaving the US, he is known for having communicated by e-mail with US Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. He also met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian Christmas Day bomber who tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit by setting off explosives concealed in his underwear. Mr. Abdulmutallab briefly took English classes in Sana’a, Yemen.
What made al-Awlaki’s reputation was the native English speaker’s ability to communicate with a broad audience and his grasp of technological skills. His renown in the West probably overplays his importance, Mr. Boucek says, but al-Awlaki’s particular skills were still important to Al Qaeda.
“He wasn’t the best theologian, but he could switch easily from perfect English to Arabic, with all the references from the Quran you could want,” Boucek says. “I don’t think we can dismiss the impact of that.”
Al-Awlaki was the thinker behind the glossy Al Qaeda magazine “Inspire,” a periodical that endeavored to explain the world’s upheaval and put it in the context of jihad. Like the al-Awlaki sermons that are easily found on the Internet, “Inspire” appealed to young alienated Muslims in a way that the rants of Ayman al-Zawahiri – the gray-bearded Egyptian who took over Al Qaeda’s leadership after bin Laden – could not, experts say.
Al-Awlaki’s cover story in the spring edition of “Inspire” stands out, Brookings’s Riedel says, for the manner in which it explains how events in the Arab World are ultimately playing out in Al Qaeda’s interest. The cover says simply “Tsunami.”
“He put a spin on the Arab Awakening that was promising for Al Qaeda – that said all the allies of America in this battleground of Al Qaeda are falling, and that it’s just a matter of time before our enemies aren’t going to be around and we’ll be able to move in to pick up the pieces,” Riedel says. “Losing such a narrator, someone who could interpret events in such a cogent manner, is significant for an organization like Al Qaeda.”
Indeed, some experts consider that, in the long run, the major impact of Friday’s strike may be the mortal blow it delivered to “Inspire.” Reports circulated after the initial news of al-Awlaki’s death suggested that the vehicle hit by the drone strike also contained Samir Khan, another American convert to jihad who co-produced the magazine.
“These were the brains behind ‘Inspire,’ a very powerful tool that answered all the questions anyone thinking about jihad might have to ask, like, ‘Why should I become involved in this?’ ” Carnegie’s Boucek says. “If that’s gone now, that’s something we shouldn’t downplay.”
Still, Boucek says the loss of one particularly inspirational leader may not, in the end, weigh much against the Arab world’s upheaval. “We are only at the beginning of the transformation in the region,” he says. “It’s way too early to be talking about the end of Al Qaeda.”