- By Mary Habeck
The news that Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed raises important issues for the continuing war on al Qaeda. First, al Qaeda has lost a vital asset, one that will be difficult to replace. Awlaki was a smart and articulate spokesman for the organization, giving an American voice to its extremist views and using contemporary terms and examples in a way that appealed to far more ordinary people than previous outreaches to Americans by al Qaeda — including those led by Adam Gadahn and “Rakan Ben Williams.” It is unclear just how many people have been radicalized by his work — we know about Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood killer) and Abdulmutallab (the Detroit “underwear” bomber) — but there may be many more. Second, Awlaki’s position within al Qaeda shows the importance that the group places on “inciting jihad” and dawa — that is, on pushing young Muslims to join the jihad while inculcating them into al Qaeda’s radical version of Islam. Awlaki performed both of these functions within the group, without which it would be unable to recruit new fighters for its global insurgency. Awlaki might also have been an important liaison for al Qaeda with the large Yemeni Awlaq tribe; his family — and his father in particular — are leading members of this influential tribe.
It has also been reported that the United States carried out the strike that killed Awlaki. If this is true, there are a few potential implications. This would be the first time that an American-born citizen was targeted and killed by the United States as part of its war, which might raise some lasting constitutional issues. Just as important is the issue of efficacy. Awlaki will be difficult for al Qaeda to replace, but not impossible, and his death will not end the war. His targeting in fact raises once again the issue of the proper strategy for taking on our enemy. Every airstrike in this conflict is based on an underlying strategy of attrition — the belief that the United States can kill its way out of this problem. If the United States faces a low-level terrorism issue, attrition might just work, but if we are involved in a global insurgency, attrition alone will not solve, and might in fact exacerbate, the challenges we face. Killing off leaders — even important ones like Awlaki — creates martyrs, promotes younger and less inhibited fighters, and acts as a recruitment and radicalization tool for the insurgency. In other words, the death of Awlaki stops one important voice in this fight, but will not halt the slow collapse of Yemen into al Qaeda’s hands, nor its use as a base for further action by the group.