The al-Awlaki Debate Continues

Several days ago I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki would do little to keep the US safer from attacks stemming from AQAP. Not surprisingly several people disagreed with me. Some did so via personal e-mail communications, the private nature of which I will respect, some did so in the comments sections of Waq al-waq and some did so publicly (see here and here.)

Among those disagreeing with me was Thomas Hegghammer, a brilliant scholar of Saudi Arabia and the original AQAP, whose work I greatly respect. I have learned a great deal from Thomas over the years. Indeed, I was a preceptor for a class he taught at Princeton a few years ago and learned a great deal from his lectures. His article in Foreign Policy came to the opposite conclusion of what I argued in the NYT. Namely that removing al-Awlaki from the battlefield would do a great deal to keep the US safer from future AQAP attacks.

I know both Thomas and I stand by our printed remarks, and I think this is an interesting case of how two people, looking at the same pool of evidence can come to such diametrically opposed conclusions. I also think, given the attention the "al-Awlaki debate" has gotten that it would be appropriate for me to respond to Thomas’ written remarks. (He has seen a copy of this post before it was published on the blog.)

First, let me begin with where we agree. Both of us agree that al-Awlaki is not in AQAP’s top leadership. Both of us also agree that while a threat going after al-Awlaki with drones will likely make the situation worse (more on this below), and that the US and Yemeni governments should seek to arrest him and try him in court.

I will leave off where we agree and get to our disagreement.

My basic argument runs: "But no one should remain under the mistaken assumption that killing Mr. Awlaki will somehow make us safer."

Thomas’ basic argument runs: "… he (al-Awlaki) is arguably the single most important individual behind the group's efforts to carry out operations in the West. …. His removal will not destroy AQAP, but it will reduce the group's ability to strike in the West."

You don’t get much more different than that.

Much of Thomas’ argument as well as his conclusion that al-Awlaki (at least in the short term) is irreplaceable – someone whose removal will severely curtail AQAP’s ability to attack the US – is circumstantial, which for that matter, so is mine. We are both arguing what is in essence a counter-factual, which makes this a difficult debate to definitively prove but an engaging one to have.

But let’s not let that stop the debate.

To begin with I’m not sure what Thomas means when he writes: "by all accounts, (al-Awlaki is) playing an active role in the planning of international terrorist attacks." If "by all accounts" he means US intelligence reports and western media reports, then yes I agree with him. (I think this is what he means, but I don't think, in this case, this evidence is definitive.) If he means what AQAP has published about itself then I would have to part company with him.

Much of Thomas’ argument is based on the assumption that al-Awlaki is the "Head of Foreign Operations," a unit that was first referenced in the third issue of Inspire magazine and has not, to the best of my knowledge, been referenced in Arabic.

Thomas writes: "The article is almost certainly written by Awlaki. We know this because the article references obscure figures from the history of Muslim Spain, a pet subject of Awlaki's, and because it mentions Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, a book he reviewed on his blog in 2008. Moreover, Awlaki is a personal friend of the editor of Inspire, Samir Khan, and has published in the magazine in the past."

This point, as well as Thomas’ later discussion of the Foreign Operation Unit, raises a number of interesting questions.

I don’t want to give his argument short shrift, so I will quote at length his portion on the Foreign Operations Unit:

"The unit likely counts no more than 10 people and hides in a different physical location from that of the top AQAP leadership. This is why Awlaki appears only on the margins of the radar of those who follow the day-to-day operations of AQAP proper. This is probably also why the magazine Inspire differs somewhat in style and content from AQAP's main magazine Sada al-Malahim.

The Foreign Operations Unit is most likely staffed by people who know Western societies well, such as Awlaki and Samir Khan, as well as by a couple of expert bomb makers such as Ibrahim al-Asiri. Together they represent some of AQAP's most precious human resources. More to the point, they are not easily replaceable. The vast majority of AQAP members -- including its top leaders and ideologues -- have never spent time in the West and would not be very good at planning international operations."

Given Thomas’ argument of how important al-Awlaki is I’m unsure, from a purely CT perspective, how he comes to the conclusion that the US shouldn’t attempt to assassinate him. Of course, capturing him is preferable, but if he is the one person whose removal will make the US safer from AQAP attacks then the Obama administration is, from a CT perspective, correct to be hunting him with drones. I, of course, disagree. But this is a small point in our debate.

The larger questions and the reasons I’m still convinced I’m right and that killing or arresting al-Awlaki will likely make little difference in US homeland security are as follows:

1. If the Foreign Operations Unit is such a close-knit group of individuals (ten guys) and all, or mostly all, have extensive knowledge of the west and if this is the group that is putting out Inspire, then why the delay in getting Inspire out?

From the delay it seemed as though the individuals running Inspire only found out about the plot along with everything else. If Thomas’ argument is true, wouldn’t they have had prior knowledge and been able to capitalize on the publicity quicker? As it was, they followed the Arabic statement (not put out by the Foreign Operations Unit) and even mislabeled it in their magazine, calling it # 26 instead of #29.

2. If al-Awlaki is as important as Thomas believes him to be, why are we only hearing about the Foreign Operations Unit now? Where was this after the Christmas Day bomber, or for that matter after the August 2009 attempt on Prince Muhammad bin Nayyif in Saudi Arabia?

3. That question, of course, begs another question: was the attack in Saudi Arabia in August 2009 the work of the Foreign Operations Unit? We know for certain that it was the work of Ibrahim Asiri, whom Thomas has placed in the unit. Is he a bomb maker that floats back-and-forth between the Foreign Operations Units and the main group of AQAP that is busy fighting the Yemeni government?

4. We know that Asiri does not have experience in the west, but isn’t it possible that the knowledge that al-Wihayshi (4 years as bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan), al-Raymi (years in Afghanistan), al-Shihri, (Guantanamo), al-Rubaysh (Guantanamo) and so on, could mean that these men too are focused on the US and attacking the US and that they don’t need al-Awlaki to know they need to fight the US. I think Thomas is calling into question their ability (not desire) to attack the west, but I think we would be wrong to underestimate AQAP's core leadership and elevate al-Awlaki to some sort of super-terrorist.

To me this is drawing too clear a distinction that the evidence does not support. From the very beginning (al-Raymi’s audio tape in June 2007) AQ in Yemen and then AQAP have been very clear about targeting both the US and its "agents" in the region. There is no "near enemy/far enemy" distinction in their rhetoric, and to try to place outside constructs on the group is, I think, a mistake.

5. I think the difference in tone between Inspire and Sada al-Malahim can be attributed more to the personalities of their editors, Samir Khan and Muhammad al-Qahtani respectively, than to anything else. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the two journals are/were appealing to different audiences.

6. Why if al-Awlaki is and presumably was so important to the group was his name only mentioned by AQAP after the Christmas Day bombing in issue 12 of Sada al-Malahim? And this mention as the magazine makes clear is only in response to US news reports that he was killed in a US air strike.

7. Thomas’ article assumes a great deal such as 1.) al-Awlaki is the head of the Foreign Operations Unit. (Maybe, maybe not). 2. ) That only those members of AQAP that have spent significant time working and/or living in the west are making attacking the west their top priority. (This still doesn’t explain Asiri and his students, unless one is willing to believe they are bombers on loan, but if that were true wouldn’t it suggest that AQAP’s top leadership was actively involved in the attacks on the west.) I think there are many members of AQAP that haven’t lived in the west that are eager and excited to attack the US (US air strikes in Yemen are plenty of motivation) and I don’t think it requires time living in the west to be able to mount an attack on the west. That may have been the case with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but times and things have changed. 3.) The article assumes that we in the west have a good handle and know the westerners operating in AQAP. (Again, maybe but maybe not.)

8. Thomas’ argument regarding a small group of distinct players as the Foreign Operating Unit also seems to have been dealt a blow with this Washington Post report from today that suggests AQAP is looking to link up with AQIM. The article by Craig Whitlock, which incidentally quotes Thomas, suggests that AQAP was looking to carry out attacks in Europe, specifically France. This seems to suggest the work of more than 10 guys, particularly as it was being planned and carried out at roughly the same time as the parcel plot. Given Thomas argument about the distinct roles of the two groups – the Foreign Operations Unit and the core AQAP – al-Awlaki would have had to have been behind this overture and planned attack as well.

9. Why wasn’t al-Awlaki’s latest video released by al-Malahim’s media wing? For that matter, why was it in Arabic? If he is the Head of the Foreign Operations Unit, and is focused on recruiting and future operations in the west, why is he speaking in Arabic? His past shows that plenty of wanna-be jihadis in the west are attracted to him in English, why shift to a language they don’t understand when they are now his primary audience? And why, oh why, is he talking about Iran and its meddling in Yemen? Wouldn’t this be him stepping on someone else’s turf?

Given all this I think it is probable that AQAP has been working its way up. First, using its new explosive technique on Muhammad bin Nayyif, who from AQAP’s point of view is its No. 1 enemy and then, only when it had an individual with a passport that allowed him (Omar Farouk) to travel in the west using the same explosives it had tried on bin Nayyif, and then later, going a different way and using packages?

If so this would be less about al-Awlaki and more about the natural evolution of a terrorist organization. Given what I know about AQAP’s history – from AQ in Yemen to AQAP and how it evolved from 2007 – 2008 and then to 2009, this explanation makes much more sense to me. There is a structure underlying the develop that makes sense and doesn’t require us to assume as much as the scenario Thomas discusses. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one.

Also, isn’t it possible that knowing what we know AQAP and its development that as the Obama administration talks about al-Awlaki and as the media focuses on him, AQAP continues to push him forward, hoping to take advantage of all the free advertising? Basically, hoping that his name and association with AQAP can bring them more western recruits.

This would explain his "poorly veiled coming out" and the reason AQAP didn’t talk about him prior to the attempt on Muhammad bin Nayyif and the Christmas Day plot, because he wasn’t integral to either one, including the one on the US. But as the Obama Administration focused on him, AQAP kept pushing him more and more to the front and now, after the parcel bomb plot we have a "Foreign Operations Unit" that he may or may not be the head of.

Now, as I said in the NYT, the Obama administration is in a bind.

Both Thomas and I agree that al-Awlaki is a threat, we just disagree on how significant of one he is. I have often said that there is no "magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen." I still believe this to be true and in much the same way I don’t think there is a single target answer to attacks on the homeland. The US would be mistaken to think it can make the homeland safer by killing Anwar al-Awlaki.

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