Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born terrorist preacher, filled a specific niche: guiding and encouraging would-be terrorists in the USA and other English-speaking countries.
His death by U.S.-led operations in Yemen early Friday erases a man who was able to radicalize disaffected Muslims in America but does little to rattle al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda subsidiary he belonged to, security and terrorist analysts say.
Speaking in West Coast American English, al-Awlaki delivered calm, convincing diatribes in Internet speeches about the need to kill Americans, says Michael Ryan, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based group that tracks terrorist activity. Al-Awlaki also helped publish an electronic English magazine called Inspire, which offered bomb-making recipes and encouraged Muslims to attack Americans.
But al-Awlaki’s religious credentials were relatively moderate and he was not widely followed in Yemen, where he lived when he was killed, or throughout the Arabic-speaking world, Ryan says. He also wasn’t a significant player in al-Qaeda’s day-to-day operations.
“I don’t think it will have any effect on the ability for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to project transnational operations,” Ryan says. “They’re going to be just as capable the day after his death than before. They just won’t have the propaganda ability to reach people in English.”
“I think this is huge,” former U.S. represenative Jane Harman, D-Calif., who served as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, says of al-Awlaki’s killing. “I don’t think there’s anybody with dirtier hands out there.”
Al-Awlaki, who possessed an American passport, was focused on inspiring lone-wolf terrorists abroad, says Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department who studies terrorist groups in Yemen.
His mastery of American English helped him connect with Muslims inside the USA and his profile grew exponentially after U.S. intelligence officials linked him to the Fort Hood shootings, he says.
Al-Awlaki’s role within the organization was specific and encouraged by al-Qaeda, but he was not a major arm of the terrorist group, he says.
“Within al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, he’s not particularly high up in the hierarchy,” Johnsen says. “This is not going to be a debilitating blow to the organization.”
Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and spent his teenage years visiting Yemen, says J.M. Berger, editor of Intelwire.com and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, which includes two chapters on al-Awlaki. He studied in Colorado and preached Islam in California and Virginia. He left the USA in 2002 and settled in Yemen two years later, he says.
While in Yemen, al-Awlaki grew increasingly radical in his online sermons, Berger says. But it wasn’t until 2009, when he was linked to the Fort Hood shooting rampage allegedly carried out by Nidal Hasan, which killed 13 people at the sprawling Texas Army post and was subsequently targeted by U.S. forces, that his speech took on a much stronger terrorist tilt.
About a half-dozen other American jihadists remain within al-Qaeda and the group surely will find someone to replace him, Berger says. But few match the charisma and scale of al-Awlaki, he says.
“He’s more eloquent than anyone else they’ve ever put in front of a camera,” Berger says. “It’s pretty clear he had substantial reach.”
Al-Alwaki mostly appealed to a small fragment of deluded young Muslims in the West, most of whom will find other preachers to legitimize their jihadist cause, says Fawaz Gerges, author of The Rise and Fall of al- Qaeda and director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Politics. Yemen’s threats — civil war, entrenched terrorist activity — reach far beyond al-Alwaki, he says.
“His removal will unlikely have any fatal effects on the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out attacks inside Yemen and in neighboring countries,” Gerges says.b