September 30, 2011

Awlaki Killing May Not Be a Lasting Blow to Al Qaeda

Originally published in The Weekly Standard

The radical Islamist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula  (AQAP), was killed in north Yemen today. Awlaki served as a key conduit for foreign fighters into Yemen and is believed to have directed several recent attacks against the United States. The death of the Yemeni-American militant will likely degrade AQAP’s ability to recruit foreign fighters and to conduct attacks against America in the near term. However, over the long term killing Awlaki will probably not reduce AQAP’s capabilities significantly.

Awlaki helped the leadership extend the organization’s reach beyond Yemen, but was not essential to its ability to hold and expand its territory in Yemen or, ultimately, to wage war against the West. The AQAP leadership in Yemen remains intact: the group’s leader Nasser al-Wahayshi, deputy leader Said al-Shihri, military commander Qasim al-Raymi, operative Fahd al-Quso, and bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri are alive and well. The leadership will continue to operate, even with the loss of Awlaki. After all, much of the top leadership of al Qaeda in Yemen was killed in the years following the September 11 attacks and new leaders stepped in to fill the vacancies.

Targeted killings, as Fred Kagan writes, are not a strategy for defeating AQAP, but just one tactic in a broader strategy, which includes denying the outfit a safe haven in Yemen. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, AQAP now has more operating space there. Al Qaeda-linked militants calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law) began to seize and hold territory in Abyan governorate after the current unrest in Yemen broke out. Militants took control of the town of Jaar early on, which was then used to stage an offensive against the governorate’s capital, Zinjibar. The city fell to al Qaeda within days, and the Yemeni military has been actively fighting the militants since early June. At one point, Ansar al-Sharia controlled nearly all of Abyan governorate and gained significant ground near the port city of Aden. The group still has strongholds in Abyan and has begun to enforce its interpretation of shari’a law in towns securely under its control. A major Yemeni offensive against Ansar al-Sharia in Zinjibar, launched in early September, has not cleared the area of militants.

Yemen is a collapsing state challenged by a shrinking economy and rapidly depleting resources. Moreover, the Yemeni government, already facing an active rebellion in the north and growing secessionist movement in the south, has been further weakened by the Arab Spring protests. Success against AQAP requires not only tackling the organization itself, but addressing the conditions that have made Yemen an al Qaeda safe haven.