Thoughts on the Killing of al-Awlaki

So, Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted and reportedly killed by a drone this morning. Samir Khan, another American-born AQAP member (and allegedly the principal editor and architect behind the popular online magazine INSPIRE) may also have been killed in the attack. If this morning’s media accounts are accurate, this is a significant blow to the English-speaking segment of AQAP and the broader al-Qaida network. It’s also a good indication of the quality of intelligence we’re getting in Yemen, and how we have improved our own capabilities to find and eliminate high value targets like this.

One question that comes to mind is whether or not someone within AQAP (or AQ generally) may have had a role in this incident. Even before the demise of bin Laden earlier this year, we have been observing various AQ members trying to position themselves for power and influence within the network. From this viewpoint, it is entirely possible that someone may have seen al-Awlaki as a rival, a threat to their power within the network because of his increasing popularity, and chose to provide information about his whereabouts. Whenever we see this kind of competition for leadership of a terrorist organization, it usually coincides with an increase in violence and attacks, including the kinds of violence in which organizational rivals try to eliminate each other. Just a thought.

Overall, this is a good, symbolic victory in the long struggle against AQ. This is not really a huge hit to al-Qaida’s operational capabilities, but it is definitely important in terms of eliminating a popular source of radicalization. He was especially popular among Western jihadists because of the way he communicated the al-Qaida ideology in plain English. But it is important to remember that those messages are still out there on the Internet, and will likely be a source of inspiration for future al-Qaida wanna-bes. These could also inspire a revenge attack, as some members or supporters of the al-Qaida network will be angry that we targeted and killed a Muslim cleric who did not shoot or bomb anyone himself.

In the long run, though, al-Qaida will cease to be a threat. No terrorist organization of any kind has been around forever. Their attacks have already alienated an overwhelming majority of the Muslim world, which is al-Qaida’s primary audience. They’re constantly appealing for support, and trying to justify their actions to the Muslim world, but at the same time al-Qaida attacks over the last decade have killed 8 Muslims for every 1 non-Muslim. That kind of hypocrisy undermines their ability to sustain the movement over the long term – regardless of how charismatic their ideological messengers are or the language they speak.

– James Forest

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