The New Face of al Qaeda?

The Yemeni-American firebrand preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, won't replace Osama bin Laden as al Qaeda's No. 1 -- but Washington should be worried about his increasing prominence.

Muhammad ud-Deen via Wikipedia
Muhammad ud-Deen via Wikipedia

The death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden led immediately to excessive speculation over who will replace him at the helm of the organization and as the face of global terrorism. Latest news reports indicate that Egyptian militant Saif al-Adel has been appointed the interim leader of al Qaeda while the organization works to appoint a permanent head. Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand Yemeni-American preacher linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local branch, is one of the most frequently mentioned candidates. But despite his high-profile notoriety, incendiary rhetoric, and numerous alleged links to significant terrorist plots and attacks, Awlaki will not supplant bin Laden.

The truth is that bin Laden was an irreplaceable figure as both the head of al Qaeda and the leader of the global jihadi movement. Awlaki may lack many of the qualifications and experiences necessary to fill those shoes, but he poses a serious threat to U.S. national security nevertheless. And as the political situation and conditions in Yemen continue to worsen, the dangers associated with Awlaki and AQAP only get more severe.

Awlaki’s credentials come up short in the competition to take over from bin Laden. He does not have serious religious credentials, nor can he boast of combat experience. As far we know, he did not have a relationship with bin Laden and the two never even met. And despite being very well known among English speakers, Awlaki is not nearly as well known by Arabic speakers who make up the bulk of the global jihadi movement. It is important to note that this is beginning to change. During recent conversations I had in Riyadh, Saudi security officials warned that Awlaki’s profile is rising in the Arabic-speaking world.

Awlaki, perhaps most importantly, does not engender the same feelings of love and affection that bin Laden did. Very soft-spoken, almost gentle, bin Laden was widely admired in the Arabian Peninsula for abandoning a life of luxury, affluence, and comfort to follow his beliefs. While many disagreed with his actions and condemned the violence he inspired, bin Laden was viewed as a pious and religious man who stuck to his convictions — no matter the consequences. Although a potent speaker with the power to inspire others, Awlaki does not generate such broad fondness.

But even if Awlaki is not poised to assume bin Laden’s mantle, he should not be dismissed.

Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1971 to Yemeni parents, Awlaki spent his early childhood in the United States before returning to Yemen. In 1991 he came back to the United States to attend college and graduate school. During this time he also worked in several mosques and Islamic centers. According to several reports, it was in this period that Awlaki began to draw attention. The 9/11 Commission report raises unanswered questions about Awlaki’s alleged interactions with several of the 9/11 conspirators, which include contact with two of the hijackers while he preached at a San Diego mosque.

Awlaki’s name is all over recent attempts on the West. He is allegedly linked to a string of recent attacks, including the mass shooting at Fort Hood, the failed attack on a passenger plane destined for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the parcel-bomb plot in 2010. Last November, Roshonara Choudhry was found guilty of trying to murder British member of Parliament Stephen Timms; according to media reports Choudhry stabbed Timms as punishment for his support of the Iraq war after watching more than 100 hours of Awlaki’s sermons. This January, a Yemeni court convicted Awlaki in absentia for his role in inciting the October 2010 murder of a French oil worker. And British Airways employee Rajib Karim was convicted in February in a British court of several counts — including conspiring with Awlaki — in connection with a plot to attack British Airways flights.

There is no question that Awlaki is a brilliant and captivating orator. One Yemeni official referred privately to Awlaki’s sermons as convincing and dangerous. For non-native Arabic listeners, his ability to shift between perfect, idiomatic English and flawless Quranic Arabic is powerful. Frequent hadith references and examples from Islamic history provide an air of authenticity and depth that he uses to great effect. Among his recordings are "War Against Islam," "State of the Ummah," and "The Dust Will Never Settle Down" — powerfully motivating and inspirational speeches.

But Awlaki is not, as some reports have claimed, the leader of AQAP. The group’s head is Nasser al-Wihishi. Moreover, Awlaki is not the spiritual guide of the group or even likely to be on its sharia committee. He does, however, play a leading role among those active within AQAP in mounting attacks against the United States and the West.

It’s not purely his role in AQAP’s foreign operations that’s worrisome. Awlaki’s ability to radicalize and recruit vulnerable audiences in the West — especially those that are not on authorities’ radar — is a real concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials. His propaganda is easily available to English-speaking audiences via YouTube and raises the risk of homegrown terrorism in the United States. There was probably a time when the Western media overhyped his significance in global terrorism, but there is no doubt that Awlaki is a dangerous figure today.

All this has made him a priority target of kinetic U.S. counterterrorism operations. It was reported that President Barack Obama authorized the assassination of Awlaki in April 2010, and he was the apparent target of a U.S. drone strike days after bin Laden was killed. Chances are that the United States will be able to capture or kill him eventually, but that doesn’t end the danger.

The most omnipresent terrorist threat the United States faces today is the opportunistic attacks that are either homegrown or stem from weak or failing states, not the spectacular attacks that take months of preparation. A catastrophic attack — while still the intention of al Qaeda’s core — is much less likely than smaller operations that are harder to pre-emptively detect. And those are the kind of attacks Awlaki has the power to inspire.

In the end, it doesn’t help much to ask who the next bin Laden is, since the problem is bigger than any one man. Regardless of whose image captivates the world, al Qaeda figures, including Awlaki, are busy plotting terrorist mayhem. And Washington needs to do all it can to reduce the risk of another attack.

Christopher Boucek is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.