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.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP
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.

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.

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.

Yemen, one of the most conservative countries in the Islamic world, has a rugged landscape, weak central government, and devastating poverty that have combined to create fertile ground for extremist ideology.

On May 5, drone strikes in the southern province of Shabwa, a suspected haven of Al Qaeda militants, killed two brothers alleged to be mid-level operatives in Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, US and Yemeni officials confirmed that the strike, the first carried out by US drones in Yemen since 2002, was an attempt to assassinate Awlaki.

Protesters upset by West's shift in focus to Al Qaeda

The renewed focus on Yemeni extremism following Bin Laden’s death has been considered a blow to demonstrators calling for the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The president, who has been in power for 32 years, was on the brink of tendering his resignation under a Gulf-sponsored initiative that would have seen him transfer power in 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. But the mercurial leader now appears to have backed out of the deal.

Protesters fear that renewed international attention to the Al Qaeda threat could provide a lifeline to Mr. Saleh, one of Washington's key counterterrorism allies.

The May 5 US drone strikes, they say, are indicative of America’s continued reliance on Saleh, despite the fact that at least some in Washington and many in Sanaa believe he has exaggerated the threat posed by AQAP to curry favor and funding from the West.

“The threat of Al Qaeda is much smaller than is being projected right now,” says Hamza Alshargabi, a prominent Yemeni activist and blogger. “There are violent elements in every society, including the US. The difference is that our people get more press.”

Analysts estimate that AQAP is composed of a core group of several hundred members among the country's 24 million people.

In recent weeks, Saleh has sought to highlight the threat posed by Al Qaeda within the country, often associating the extremist group with the official opposition parties and demonstrators. That AQAP, and Awlaki specifically, have publicly lauded efforts to topple Yemen’s regime, has raised concern among Western policymakers wondering what comes next after Saleh.

Already dangerously fragile, Yemen has been further destabilized by months of political turmoil that have not only shifted attention away from domestic extremism, but may be creating opportunities for extremist groups like AQAP to increase their operations.

“The US has to realize that in the long run, supporting President Saleh stepping down sooner rather than later is in its best interest when it comes to counterterrorism,” says Mr. Johnsen. “As the security situation in Yemen deteriorates, as the economy continues to crumble, the question now has to become what does Yemen look like if President Saleh stays in power?”

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