The Yemeni Defense Ministry has announced that U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in an airstrike. If the reports are true, al-Awlaki's death would be a blow to al Qaeda's Yemeni franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But it is important not to overstate the cleric's death; AQAP's ideological and physical battle against the West will continue whether he is dead or not.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry on Sept. 30 announced that an airstrike directed against a motorcade near the town of Khashef in Yemen's al-Jawf province killed U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. AFP and Al Arabiya have reported that tribal sources in Yemen have confirmed al-Awlaki's death. U.S. counterterrorism sources have also confirmed the death to STRATFOR. Al-Awlaki served as an ideologue and spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda's franchise in Yemen. However, when considering the implications of al-Awlaki's death, it is important not to overstate his role in AQAP. He was not the group's leader, as some in the media have claimed, and although he was a member of its Shariah Council, he was not even the group's primary religious leader. If the reports are true — rumors of his death have surfaced in the past — his death would severely damage the al Qaeda node's ability to inspire militants in the English-speaking world to action. AQAP's outreach to those militants will not stop completely, nor will its attempts to attack the West on the physical battlefield. AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi has placed a great deal of emphasis on strategic communications as a form of jihad, which has been reflected by the amount of resources the group has devoted to its Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim and the English-language Inspire magazine. Al-Wahayshi also has taken the lead in advocating that Muslims embrace a leaderless resistance model for their militant operations. Having been born, raised and educated in the United States, al-Awlaki has served as AQAP's primary spokesman to Muslims in the English-speaking world, and his efforts have inspired a number of attacks and attempted attacks. Al-Awlaki has been linked to Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and two of the 9/11 hijackers. More recently, al-Awlaki and AQAP appear to have inspired U.S. Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, the man arrested July 27 and charged with planning an attack on Ft. Hood. (click here to enlarge image) When considering these reports of al-Awlaki's death, it is also important to remember that he has been declared dead before. The first time followed a December 2009 airstrike in Shabwa province, and the second came after a May 5 unmanned aerial vehicle strike in Nissab, Shabwa province. Shabwa is near al-Jawf, where al-Awlaki was reportedly killed. If he is indeed dead, we can anticipate a statement or eulogy from AQAP in the near future. Al-Awlaki's death would deprive AQAP of an important asset in the group's outreach to the English-speaking world and its efforts to inspire grassroots operatives there, which is the primary threat he posed to the United States and the West. It also would impact AQAP operations on the ideological battlefield. The group's outreach to the English-speaking world will continue through Inspire magazine and its editor, Samir Khan, but Khan simply does not have the prominence of al-Awlaki. There is already an indication that Khan is operating under some constraint. On Sept. 27, AQAP published the seventh edition of Inspire magazine. That issue, dedicated to the 9/11 attacks, mostly was composed of photos with very little written content. It did not contain the normal "Open Source Jihad" section, which is intended to equip grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks in the West. The fact that the edition was so lacking in written content and that it was published 16 days after the 9/11 anniversary is an indication that Khan may be under some pressure and does not have the same freedom to operate as he has in the past. But AQAP does not just operate on the ideological battlefield. On the physical battlefield, the increased pace of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen likely will serve to keep AQAP's leadership focused on survival, and the group's fighting on the ground in Yemen also will consume most of its physical resources. AQAP fighters are likely too busy to contemplate and launch attacks against the West like the December 2009 underwear bomb or the November 2010 cargo bomb attempt. However, al-Wahayshi, his tactical commanders and AQAP's innovative bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri would certainly like to target the West, and if given the latitude, they will continue to plot attacks against targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and beyond, regardless of whether al-Awlaki is dead or not.