The Two Sides of Anwar al-Awlaki
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
The al-Awlaki stories continue to fly off the presses at an astounding rate. (But more on that later).
One of the things I neglected to mention in my earlier post was the different roles that Anwar al-Awlaki plays, which has been pointed out to me by some very smart people.
There are a couple of things at play here.
First, is Awlaki's role within AQAP - the organization that put the bomb on the plane on Christmas Day 2009 and the one responsible for the pair of printer bombs last year. Awlaki's death is, in my view, not a debilitating blow to the organization.
In fact, I believe that there are individuals still alive and at-large in Yemen who are more of a threat to US national security than al-Awlaki.
I said as much to the Washington Post, which has an unnamed US official pushing back at my interpretation. (The US also gave al-Awlaki a new title - one he apparently never took for himself, at least not publicly - in death.)
But Awlaki is much more than just a member of AQAP, and this is what makes him dangerous. He is someone who inspires what are often called lone wolf terrorists in the west. People such as Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood and the Times Square Bomber.
And this is where Awlaki is more difficult to replace. The US clearly hopes that he is a unique figure in that no one will step in to fill his role - although I think it is important to note as James Spencer does in the comment on the previous threat - that Awlaki's sermons will outlive him.
It is also unclear to me whether Awlaki pushed these individuals over the edge or whether he just reinforced their ideas. Put another way, if Awlaki didn't exist would they have still carried out their attacks.
The US by putting Awlaki on the targeted kill list, obviously bet that the answer to that question is no - and that the death of Awlaki will make Americans safer.
As I put earlier I'm not certain about this.
Tacked on to this argument is that without Awlaki AQAP wouldn't have went after the US, or at least wouldn't have prioritized such attacks as the 2009 and 2010 attempts. I find this argument strange.
Wihayshi served with bin Laden and was with him on September 11, does anyone really think he needed al-Awlaki to remind him that the US was a target.
According to the arguments put forward by some, Awlaki's death should greatly diminish AQAP's ability and desire to strike at the US. I'm remain doubtful.
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