Bloomberg News

Al-Qaeda Threat Survives Death of Key Propagandist in Yemen

October 01, 2011

(Updates with Justice Department memo in 24th-25th paragraphs.)

Oct. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a serious terrorist threat even after the drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki eliminated one of the group’s most persuasive recruiters and propagandists.

While President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials hailed Anwar al-Awlaki’s death yesterday as “a major blow” to al-Qaeda, U.S. counter-terrorism officials and outside experts said the New Mexico-born extremist wasn’t AQAP’s leader. They said the group continues to be the greatest threat to the U.S. and its allies outside al-Qaeda’s core and allied groups, such as the Haqqani network, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Al-Qaeda remains a threat,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “While this is an important milestone, it is not the end of AQAP.”

The greatest threat posed by al-Awlaki and his colleague, Samir Khan, the editor of English-language magazine Inspire who was killed with him, was their ability to radicalize and recruit disaffected young Muslims.

Using social media such as YouTube, they reached out to young Muslims with American or European passports and citizenship, credit cards, language skills and cultural knowledge that make them hard for law enforcement officials to spot.

No ‘Seasoned Operator’

Al-Awlaki “wasn’t a seasoned operator, even though they tried to move him into that role,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the homeland security and counter-terrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “He wasn’t even a serious cleric or ideologue in the Muslim world.”

“In fact, despite the tenets of conservative Islam, he was arrested twice” in San Diego in 1996 and 1997 for soliciting prostitutes, Nelson said.

Al-Awlaki was “an extraordinarily effective and proven recruiter who had the cultural duality to persuade people to cross the line between rhetoric and violent action,” said Nelson in a telephone interview.

Through AQAP’s website, al-Awlaki helped inspire U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan to kill 13 people and wound 29 at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009, U.S. counter-terrorism officials said. He also encouraged Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear, they said.

Earlier that year, they said, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammed, who mounted a drive-by shooting at a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas, that killed one soldier and wounded another, said AQAP had dispatched him. He had converted to Islam and changed his name from Carlos Leon Bledsoe.

Under Surveillance

Al-Awlaki wasn’t a master of basic terrorist tradecraft. That was reflected in the fact that U.S. and Yemeni intelligence operatives kept him under surveillance for some three weeks without being detected, that he regularly traveled between the same two points in Yemen and that he and Khan were traveling together rather than separately, said Nelson and government officials.

Al-Awlaki’s death “will degrade the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to recruit foreigners and to conduct attacks against Americans,” said Katherine Zimmerman, the Yemen analyst for Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington public policy organization.

“However,” she continued in a blog posting yesterday, “AQAP has a safe haven in Yemen that it has progressively expanded over the course of the Arab Spring, and the organization will not be greatly affected because Awlaki’s death does not impact AQAP’s ability to control territory in Yemen.”

Still at Large

The announcement, she wrote, “should be heralded as progress against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it will not prevent AQAP from attacking the United States and its allies over the medium and long term.”

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was founded in January 2009 when Nasir al-Wuhayshi merged al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He remains at large, as does the group’s leading bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is believed to have made two bombs hidden in printer cartridges that were discovered a year ago in cargo flown from Sana’a, Yemen, to Philadelphia and Chicago.

Al-Awlaki’s death has deprived al-Qaeda and its affiliates of one of their most important second-generation voices, said Nelson of CSIS. One of Osama bin Laden’s goals, he said, was to make al-Qaeda a self-sustaining movement. Recruiters such as al- Awlaki, who attracted younger followers, were an important part of that.

‘The Media Conflict’

The operation that killed al-Awlaki and Khan also eliminated two of the leading voices in one of the movement’s most effective tools for reaching possible recruits, its Inspire magazine. A third, American-born Adam Yahiye Gadahn, is thought to be in Pakistan, and Inspire promised that “an exclusive interview” with him is “coming soon.”

In what has turned out to be his final issue of the magazine, which appeared this month, Khan wrote at length about “the media jihad effort” and its importance in spreading the ideology of jihad, or in al-Qaeda’s definition of the term, holy war against the enemies of Islam both within and outside the faith.

“There were namely three things that the brothers focused on in their media efforts: quality and content of the productions, Internet security and a media dissemination strategy,” Khan wrote. “While America was focused on battling our mujahiddin in the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq, the jihadi media and its supporters were in fifth gear.”

Targeted Killings

The use of an unmanned drone in this case -- especially coming on the Muslim holy day -- may provide fuel for the jihadists’ media efforts and also raises questions about the legality of killing American citizens without judicial process.

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday charged that “the targeted killing violates both U.S. and international law.”

In a statement, ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer called the campaign “a program under which American citizens far from the battlefield can be executed without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts.”

‘Enemy Belligerent’

Charlie Dunlap, a visiting professor of law at Duke University Law School and a former judge advocate general of the U.S. Air Force, said yesterday, “If a U.S. citizen overseas presents an imminent threat, or is a participant in an organized armed group engaged in armed conflict against the U.S., as the administration seems to be alleging is the case with al-Awlaki, the mere fact that he may also be accused of criminal offenses does not necessarily give him sanctuary from being lawfully attacked overseas as any other enemy belligerent might be.”

The Justice Department wrote a memorandum authorizing the killing of al-Awlaki, following a review by senior administration lawyers of the legal issues involved, the Washington Post reported, citing unidentified administration officials.

The newspaper cited the officials as saying there was no dissent about the legality of killing al-Awlaki. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler and White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the memorandum.

Delaying Tactic

In a paper published this week by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Gregory Johnsen, a Near East scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey, writes that increased air and drone strikes are at best “a delaying tactic designed to keep AQAP off-balance until the Yemeni military can act. Airpower alone is not enough to defeat AQAP.”

While they have depleted the ranks of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, drone strikes and military special operations may distract the U.S. and its allies from broader and less dramatic efforts to eliminate the conditions of poverty, corruption and alienation that helped al- Awlaki and Khan make new converts to their gospel of violence.

“These are not ends; these are means,” said Nelson of CSIS. “We are not going to get where we want to be without also eliminating the narrative spun by people like Awlaki that appeals to a disaffected generation of young Muslims.”

At a press conference yesterday in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar said the violence and bloodshed in the country, of which the anti-terrorism campaign is just part, isn’t a solution.

“It is no longer acceptable that violence continues and it is not acceptable to remain silent towards the confiscation of the rights of Yemenis in a decent life, their demands in change and democracy, state of law and equality,” he said.

--With assistance from Kate Andersen Brower and Seth Stern in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Ann Hughey.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Walcott in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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