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Is Anwar al-Awlaki's importance to Al Qaeda overstated?

Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been referred to as an Al Qaeda leader, strategist, or ideologue – and now, as a successor to Osama bin Laden.

By Erik StierCorrespondent / May 10, 2011

In this image taken from video and released on Nov. 8, 2010, Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP

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Sanaa, Yemen

Following the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, some Western analysts see Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen as next in line to lead Al Qaeda because of the preacher's inspirational role in past attacks on America from a nation considered increasingly important for the global terrorism brand.

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The US-born cleric has been a high priority since President Obama made him the first American approved for targeted killing in April 2010. Last week, the US confirmed that drone strikes in Shabwa province were aimed at the Yemeni-American who is said to have inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, and last year's parcel bomb plot targeting America.

But while Mr. Awlaki may be garnering attention in the West, there is little evidence to indicate that he wields significant influence within Yemen’s Al Qaeda offshoot – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – much less its central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Anwar al-Awlaki is not the leader of AQAP, he’s not the spiritual head, and he's not the main ideologue. He's not any of these things that are often put out in the media,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University. “If there's one name that people in the West know, it’s Anwar al-Awlaki … but that doesn’t make him the most important player in AQAP, and I would argue that if the US were to kill him, AQAP would continue without missing a beat.”

First US strike since 2002

Awlaki may not be a key player in Al Qaeda’s hierarchy, but his role in the organization is nevertheless unique. Having spent much of his life in the US, Awlaki has been a leading voice bringing extremist ideology to the English-speaking world. Technologically adept, he has disseminated Al Qaeda dogma via Facebook, YouTube, and AQAP’s English-language publication, Inspire.

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