Assassinating Al-Awlaki: Obama's War on Propaganda

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There was considerable controversy over how much of a threat Al-Awlaki actually posed until US President Barack Obama issued an order to kill him last year, bypassing his legal authority as stated in the US constitution. (Photo: AFP - Jim Watson)

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Monday, October 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda’s Internet ‘Bin Laden,’ Anwar al-Awlaki, was an effective mentor and orator for his organization’s cause, but his active role in the network’s operations was overestimated.

Beginning in 2009, the US intensified its war on al-Qaeda in Yemen, diverting significant intelligence and combat assets from Pakistan and Somalia to the Arabian Peninsula for this purpose. US efforts have yielded several high-profile assassinations, including the most recent against Anwar al-Awlaki, the ‘Bin Laden of the Internet’ who nearly topped America’s international most wanted list.

Al-Awlaki has been an effective publicist for al-Qaeda and has become well-known over the past two years as a skilled Internet ‘jihadist.’ However, he was not seen as having a major role in al-Qaeda, nor did he appear to pose a great threat to Western interests as a result of his presence in Yemen. There was considerable controversy over how much of a threat he actually posed until US President Barack Obama issued an order to kill him last year, bypassing his legal authority as stated in the US constitution.

Although al-Awlaki was a US citizen by birth, his family hailed from the Awaleq tribe, the largest and most powerful tribal group in Yemen’s southern Shabwah region; and his father previously served as Yemen’s Minister of Agriculture. Al-Awlaki moved to Aden to study theology, eventually returning to the US to work as an imam (preacher) in mosques in San Diego, California and Falls Church, Virginia. By the time he returned to Yemen in 2002, he was widely known as a radical preacher and polemicist, and his fluency in English and Arabic distinguished him from others. In a twist of irony, his materials can be found on YouTube alongside the most recent rap releases. Al-Awlaki used this media to discuss his interpretations of the Quran, skilfully combining his knowledge of religious tradition with new media acumen. His online presence earned him the title ‘Bin Laden of the Internet.’

Although he denied links to al-Qaeda, al-Awlaki’s intellectual pursuits suggest a connection. He wrote an English-language commentary on the book Constants on the Road to Jihad by the Saudi scholar Yusuf Al-Uyayri – a former al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia killed by Saudi security forces in 2003. Al-Awlaki also lectured on the book in the US. His popularity and renown grew among Yemeni youth in the US beginning in 2000, when he became imam of a mosque in Washington DC. Two of the 9/11 attackers – Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who hijacked the plane that hit the Pentagon – reportedly attended some of al-Awlaki’s sermons.

Al-Awlaki remained largely out of the public eye until a Yemeni journalist conducted an interview with him for The Washington Post in November 2009, shortly after the Fort Hood massacre in Texas, which was carried out by Nidal Hasan, a US army Major of Palestinian ancestry.

Anwar al-Awlaqi has been killed with several other suspected al-Qaeda operatives, the Yemeni defence ministry said on 30 September 2011. (Photo: AFP)

In the interview, al-Awlaki described Hasan as a “hero.” He denied foreknowledge of the attack, but sounded as though he helped inspire it. Hasan became devout while attending al-Awlaki’s mosque in Virginia, and may have been influenced by al-Awlaki’s lectures. Al-Awlaki said that Hasan trusted him and had emailed him in confidence a year before the attack to discuss the legitimacy of violence in Islam. Al-Awlaki defended Hasan’s attack on his fellow soldiers, 13 of whom died, as a form of jihad against US hostilities in Muslim lands. Al-Awlaki said that “fighting against the US army is an Islamic duty today," and “the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal."

The Washington Post interview drew interest from the American government. But al-Awlaki was already a target of US surveillance, following the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Eve 2009. The would-be bomber, a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, said he was a student of al-Awlaki and had acted at his behest.

Soon after, the CIA tried to assassinate al-Awlaki. They sent an unmanned drone that bombed a gathering in Shabwah; however, the attack missed al-Awlaki. The US put a US$1 million bounty on his head, and several additional attempts on his life were made in subsequent months. Close tribal support in Shabwah appears to have provided al-Awlaki with protection for some time. But he was finally killed while travelling back from Al Jawf province near the Saudi border.

US War on Terror: The Shift to Yemen

Increasing US intervention in Yemen was prompted by several developments in the region. Earlier in the year, Osama Bin Laden ordered the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda to merge, forming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP). This group set out to turn Yemen into a major auxiliary base for al-Qaeda fighters operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This move was precipitated by a crisis in the country. Yemen’s central government faced internal problems and a resurgent separatist movement in the south. Additionally, large parts of the country were beyond government control, making Yemen the ideal location for an al-Qaeda ‘sanctuary.’

AQIP also intended to launch fresh campaigns against Western interests from Yemen. It planned and mobilized a number of these, employing novel methods and recruiting non-Arab volunteers as agents.

Moreover, Bin Laden planned to relocate from Pakistan to Yemen, making arrangements for his trip just before his assassination. Bin Laden harbored dreams of gathering his followers in Yemen — the land of his forefathers — since the 1980s Afghan jihad ended. He often spoke highly of Yemen and its strong tribal traditions in his speeches. Furthermore, Bin Laden required a safe haven, as the US war on his supporters in Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia intensified. Yemen’s prospective disintegration offered a perfect opportunity for the organization.

Bin Laden also favored Yemen because several Yemeni nationals played leading roles within al-Qaeda. These included Bin Laden’s former bodyguard Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who nominated Bin Laden as Amir (commander) of AQIP. Another Yemeni al-Qaeda lieutenant, military commander Qasim al-Raymi, emerged after al-Qaeda’s first ‘official’ operation in October 2000 – the attack on the US Naval destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39. Anwar al-Awlaki was a third prominent Yemen-national operating out of the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

This article was modified on 3 Oct 2011. An earlier version mistakenly referred to the Awaleq tribe as the most impoverished rather than the most powerful.

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