Anwar al-Awlaki - dead but is his message buried too?
Obama okayedhis targeted assassination – now the major thrust of US operations
THE KILLING of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen – in circumstances still unclear – highlights the way the US and its allies are now running a global counter-terrorist war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Awlaki himself, who enjoyed dual American and Yemeni citizenship, had a link – and some would say he was the link – to a string of major terrorist incidents from the 9/11 attack to the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, and the failed car bomb attack in Times Square in New York.
He was particularly powerful as a preacher of radical Islam over the Internet. Like Osama bin Laden he was a mesmeric speaker. Like bin Laden he had a highly westernised youth – before becoming preacher at a mosque in San Diego California.
And again like bin Laden, he believed in the end there could be no compromise with the non-Muslim world – all kaffir (Christians/nonbelievers) are to be mistrusted, he once preached.
The big question now is whether by silencing his voice, his opponents in the US and in the Yemen government have silenced his message.
Not only was he a brilliant orator, but a capable organiser, putting together networks that spanned half the world. The operation to blow up the American Airlines aircraft over Denver on Christmas Day 2009 involved preparation and training in the UK, Nigeria and Yemen.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab, the bomber, was recruited and radicalised at University College, London, then prepared further in his native Nigeria, before being given final intensive training for the operation in Yemen.
Awlaki, 40 at the time of death, was particularly adept at radicalising young Muslims growing up in the West who became disillusioned with its ways.
He groomed Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army psychiatrist, who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding 29 more. US Intelligence intercepted 18 emails between Awlaki and Hasan in the months before the killings. In one he declared, "I cannot wait to join you … in the afterlife."
After the Fort Hood massacre, Awlaki specifically praised the actions of Hasan in one of his web broadcasts. A few months later he said in a video-taped message that was it binding on every able-bodied Muslim to wage jihad against America.
His almost schizophrenic attitude to the West is reminiscent of that of Sayid Qutb, one of the true founders of the al-Qaeda movement, who was hanged by President Nasser for subversion of the Egyptian state in 1966.
Qutb had spent some time studying in the Midwest, which led him to loathe western ways and habits, according to his memoir Milestones, including women wearing shorts, and the obsession of suburban Americans with mowing lawns and washing cars at weekends.
Awlaki would disdain touching women in public, and yet he was given two convictions in America for soliciting prostitutes in 1996 and 1997. By 2002 the CIA and FBI had tracked him shifting funds to extremists and he fled the USA and came to Britain, where he soon gained a reputation for his preaching.
But over the last 10 years his main theatre of operations has been in Yemen, where he has been the spiritual guide and an operational planner and trainer for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is now regarded as the most effective affiliate of al-Qaeda – much more so than the group attached to the old leadership of bin Laden, and then following his assassination last April under his successor Dr Ayman al- Zawahiri.
The targeted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki was approved by President Obama in April last year. This is now the major thrust of US operations. However, the movement still remains strong, not only in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, but in Somalia, large parts of East Africa, and now west Africa including Nigeria.
And the powerful Awlak tribe in Yemen has long sworn vengeance on the West should a hair on the head of its most famous member be touched.
The killing of first bin Laden then Awlaki signals a major shift in the leadership and direction of al-Qaeda. The movement itself is far from dead, but there is a curious reaction to it and its message in Afghanistan – the country that hosted and nurtured the movement in its crucial period of growth in the 1990s.
Increasingly Afghans are openly and vociferously rejecting al-Qaeda and its message – and that even includes some clerics in the Taliban movement itself.