- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Many thanks to Gregory Johnsen for weighing in on the article that I wrote about Yemen’s "most wanted" terrorists. Without the research that he has done on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) over the years, it would have been literally impossible for me to write the piece.
Johnsen takes issue with two of the names on my list: Anwar al-Awlaki and Hizam Mujali. I’m willing to concede to his superior expertise with Mujali, but I’d like to defend the inclusion of al-Awlaki on the list. He’s certainly in a different category than the other candidates on the list, who are all tacticians of armed jihad. But his propaganda for the organization makes him as valuable to al Qaeda as any trigger-puller. From the U.S. perspective, the prospect that al-Awlaki could continue to publicly rail against the United States after maintaining contacts with three of the 9/11 hijackers and Major Nidal Malik Hasan is especially abhorrent. It amounts to another piece of evidence that praising the murder of U.S. citizens, even from within the United States, carries no consequences.
From the Yemeni perspective, however, I understand why al-Awlaki wouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s hit list: He’s just another anti-West cleric preaching to a nation that takes many of his beliefs as conventional wisdom. The "danger" posed by al-Awlaki is really a microcosm for the larger cognitive dissonance between the United States and the Yemeni government over al Qaeda: The United States sees the organization as the primary threat to stability because it is the primary danger to them in the country, while the Yemeni government had to have its arm twisted to admit that al Qaeda is a priority among all the other pitfalls currently facing the country.