Anwar al Awlaki (SITE Intelligence Group)

September 30, 2011

The Death of AQAP's Anwar al Awlaki

Radical Islamist cleric Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011. His death follows a series of targeted attacks on al Qaeda and affiliated leaders and operatives, including Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in 2011. Awlaki’s death, while a boon for the war on terror, will have a limited medium- and long-term impact on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s Yemen-based franchise. As a result of Awlaki’s death, AQAP may have more difficulty recruiting foreigners and conducting attacks on the U.S. in the short term. However, Awlaki was not one of the founding members of the organization, and other active AQAP leaders will continue to pose a threat. More importantly, AQAP and its supporters have established a safe haven in Yemen that has progressively expanded during the Arab Spring. The Critical Threats Project assesses this development and provides a list of resources on AQAP.


Katherine Zimmerman, Awlaki Killing May Not Be a Lasting Blow to Al Qaeda

"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."

Frederick W. Kagan, Targeted Killings Can't be Total Strategy to Defeat al Qaeda

"The notion that the targeted killings of a handful of key leaders of al Qaeda franchises around the world will end the terror threat to the U.S. cheaply, quickly, and efficiently is seductive but wrong. We have far too much evidence to show that committed terrorist organizations can and do replace leaders faster than we can kill them, and that the replacements can lead the movements as well or sometimes better than their deceased predecessors."

Katherine Zimmerman, Killing Anwar al Awlaki

"The death of US-born Anwar al Awlaki will degrade the ability of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to recruit foreigners and to conduct attacks against Americans. However, AQAP has a safe haven in Yemen that it has progressively expanded over the course of the Arab Spring, and the organization will not be greatly affected because Awlaki's death does not impact AQAP's ability to control territory in Yemen. Today’s announcement should be heralded as progress against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it will not prevent AQAP from attacking the United States and its allies over the medium and long term."

Katherine Zimmerman, Militant Islam's Global Preacher: The Radicalizing Effect of Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki

"Awlaki is more than just an inspirational cleric and a potential AQAP operative. He has not only made al Qaeda ideology easily accessible to English-speakers on the internet, but he has also inspired and encouraged Muslims around the world to adopt violent jihad... Awlaki’s threat to the U.S. stems not from his capacity to operationalize terrorist plots; rather, it comes from his ability to attract Muslims previously isolated from radical Islamist ideology."

Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project

Katherine Zimmerman, Ten Years After 9/11: Al Qaeda's Reemergence in Yemen

"The strategic objective of defeating AQAP and its like-minded affiliates in Yemen cannot be achieved solely through the removal of AQAP’s top leadership. Yemen’s environment permitted al Qaeda to re-emerge stronger after its leadership was removed in the early 2000s. Conditions in Yemen, even before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, are favorable for al Qaeda’s operations. The expansion of AQAP’s operating space during the Arab Spring underscores the importance of denying all al Qaeda groups safe haven."

Katherine Zimmerman, Al Qaeda's Gains in South Yemen

"The fall of Aden raises the possibility of the fall of the south, which will have resounding effects on the future of the Yemeni state. Al Qaeda would gain relative freedom of movement from the Arabian Sea to the Saudi border, significantly increasing the risk of an attack on an international or Saudi oil target, and could erect a form of an Islamist government in its territories. The Yemeni state would not only lose its southern port city of Aden, but would also lose revenues from southern oil. Should the Yemeni military or some other actor fail to halt al Qaeda’s advance, there is the very real prospect that al Qaeda could establish an Islamic emirate in south Yemen."

Frederick W. Kagan, Al Qaeda's Yemen Strategy

"AQAP seems to be attempting to carve a broad territorial corridor out of the historic heart of Yemen, with the aim of linking the southern Yemeni ports on the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea with the traditional pilgrimage and trade routes in southern Saudi Arabia. The aim of this strategy would seem to be the creation of a terrorist highway of sorts that would facilitate attacks on the Islamic holy cities in the Hijaz, Riyadh and the Najd, and the oil and gas infrastructure located in the Saudi Eastern Province, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar."

Maseh Zarif, Terror Partnership: AQAP and Shabaab

"An AQAP-Shabaab partnership based on the proximity of their safe haven networks and a shared global militant Islamist ideology constitutes an increasingly complex and dangerous threat. The recent drone strike in Somalia may fortunately have disrupted any AQAP-Shabaab operational planning to attack the American homeland, albeit temporarily; the tasks of dismantling and defeating AQAP in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia merit a heightened sense of urgency."

Katherine Zimmerman, Expanding the Campaign of Violence: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-Language Magazine

"The English-language publication breaks down barriers to recruitment: it provides radical Islamist ideology in a commonly understood language and it provides the necessary knowledge and skills to executing solo attacks or connecting to the al Qaeda network. AQAP’s release of Inspire shows an adoption of new tactics in its strategy and the promotion of an open campaign of violence against the West."

Katherine Zimmerman, A Good First Step: Treasury Lists Anwar al Awlaki

"Treasury’s designation of Awlaki is a positive step towards disrupting AQAP’s network, given that Awlaki’s role in AQAP has become increasingly operational, especially in recruiting and connecting with westerners."

Katherine Zimmerman, Examining the Potential Relocation of al Qaeda Leadership

“Yemen and Somalia could both offer some sort of sanctuary to the al Qaeda leadership, but the decision to remain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an indication that it does not sense an immediate threat to its survival. Transferring or gaining access to an established support network will take time without pre-existing, vetted networks in place.”