The Middle East Channel

The case for chasing al-Awlaki

In a recent New York Times op-ed, renowned al Qaeda expert Gregory Johnsen argued that Anwar al-Awlaki is a peripheral figure in al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and that U.S. security services should worry less about Awlaki and more about AQAP’s top leaders, such as Nasir al-Wihayshi and Sa’idal-Shihri. Johnsen is right about the first ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In a recent New York Times op-ed, renowned al Qaeda expert Gregory Johnsen argued that Anwar al-Awlaki is a peripheral figure in al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and that U.S. security services should worry less about Awlaki and more about AQAP’s top leaders, such as Nasir al-Wihayshi and Sa’idal-Shihri. Johnsen is right about the first part of his argument, but wrong about the second.

Awlaki is indeed not a top leader in AQAP’s domestic operations, but he is arguably the single most important individual behind the group’s efforts to carry out operations in the West. The threat he poses is not constructed. He has repeatedly declared his support for mass-casualty attacks on U.S. civilians and is, by all accounts, playing an active role in the planning of international terrorist attacks. His removal will not destroy AQAP, but it will reduce the group’s ability to strike in the West.


Awlaki is AQAP’s Head of Foreign Operations. In the latest issue of the group’s English-language magazine Inspire, an article signed "Head of Foreign Operations" takes credit for the recent parcel bomb plot and outlines in great detail the planning and thinking behind it. The article is almost certainly written by Awlaki. We know this because the article references obscure figures from the history of Muslim Spain, a pet subject of Awlaki’s, and because it mentions Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a book he reviewed on his blog in 2008. Moreover, Awlaki is a personal friend of the editor of Inspire, Samir Khan, and has published in the magazine in the past.

Awlaki’s poorly veiled "coming out" as an operational leader confirms long-held suspicions of intelligence analysts familiar with his e-mail communications. In public, Awlaki has cast himself as an ideologue who supports armed struggle against the West, but is not directly involved in operations. In private, however, he has spent the past year actively recruiting prospective terrorists by e-mail and taking part in face-to-face indoctrination of operatives in Yemen.

Al-Awlaki has been in direct e-mail contact with a substantial number people charged with or convicted on terrorism-related charges in the West in the past year. The most prominent are Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad; others include Paul Rockwood, Barry Bujol, Zachary Chesser, and Sharif Mobley, all of whom have been charged with planning or supporting terrorism in the U.S. or abroad.

More significant, Awlaki has been directly involved in both of the two AQAP plots against the U.S. homeland, namely the Detroit attack and the parcel bomb operation. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian whose underpants bomb failed to detonate on NWA flight 253 in December last year, has told interrogators that he received personal blessings from Awlaki in Yemen before embarking on the operation.

Judging by the latest issue of Inspire, Awlaki was also the coordinator of the parcel bomb plot in October this year. In other words, he is more than an ideologue; he is an organizer and a recruiter.

Awlaki is most likely part of a small AQAP cell — the Foreign Operations Unit –which specializes in international operations and keeps a certain distance to the rest of the organization. We are probably dealing with a classic case of functional separation of tasks: While most AQAP fighters are busy fighting Yemeni security forces and attacking Western targets in Yemen, the Foreign Operations Unit lies low and plans international operations slowly and carefully. The unit likely counts no more than 10 people and hides in a different physical location from that of the top AQAP leadership. This is why Awlaki appears only on the margins of the radar of those who follow the day-to-day operations of AQAP proper. This is probably also why the magazine Inspire differs somewhat in style and content from AQAP’s main magazine Sada al-Malahim

The Foreign Operations Unit is most likely staffed by people who know Western societies well, such as Awlaki and Samir Khan, as well as by a couple of expert bomb makers such as Ibrahim al-Asiri. Together they represent some of AQAP’s most precious human resources. More to the point, they are not easily replaceable. The vast majority of AQAP members — including its top leaders and ideologues — have never spent time in the West and would not be very good at planning international operations. Global jihad requires worldly men. The 9/11 attack, for example, was coordinated by the U.S.-educated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and led by the Hamburg cell.

Al Qaeda in Yemen is short on this type of human capital, which is why virtually no Yemenis have thus far taken part in Islamist terrorist attacks outside the Muslim world. If the Foreign Operations Unit was somehow incapacitated, AQAP would arguably not have the capability, at least in the short term, to mount major attacks on the U.S. homeland.

If protecting the homeland is a priority, then dismantling AQAP’s Foreign Operations Unit should be at the top of America’s counterterrorism agenda in Yemen. Chasing the rest of AQAP is important, but should come second on the list of priorities. Of course, a strong core organization helps the Foreign Operations Unit, but the terrorist threat to the West from Yemen is by no means directly proportional to the overall strength of AQAP. Besides, it is doubtful whether U.S. agencies can do very much against the core AQAP organization without leaving a larger footprint in Yemen, which in turn may prove counterproductive. So long as the core AQAP organization is not deeply involved in attacks on the U.S. homeland, then the risks of going after them with drones and U.S. Special Forces may well outweigh the benefits.

Chasing Awlaki is the right thing to do — but how? Much of the current debate about U.S. policy in Yemen revolves around drone strikes, but a Hellfire missile is neither the only nor the best way to remove this threat. The Foreign Operations Unit is very small and probably not gathered in a single physical location. They may well be hiding in populated areas, where the risk of collateral damage in a drone strike is very high. The best way to deal with Awlaki is to seek his arrest through good old-fashioned intelligence work; that is, collecting signals intelligence, planting informants, and mounting small search teams made up of Yemeni special forces. This is how Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was captured in Pakistan in 2003; there is no reason why the same cannot be done with Awlaki in Yemen.

Thomas Hegghammer is a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and the author of "Jihad in Saudi Arabia."

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