Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American cleric that the United States have been trying to kill for the past year, finally met his maker on Friday.
American drones hovering in Yemeni airspace spotted the radical imam in a remote area in the north of the country, considered the tribal heartland of Yemen. Awlaki had just finished breakfast and was headed for his vehicle when the unmanned aircraft fired their their missiles, first at the car of Awlaki’s companions, then at Awlaki himself. The missiles incinerated the two vehicles and left Awlaki in scattered pieces until his hosts gathered his burned remains and buried him deep underground.
Besides Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawhiri, Anwar al-Awlaki has been one of those senior Al Qaeda figures that Washington has hoped to get its hands on for years. His name rapidly elevated in importance after investigators learned that the young Nigerian who attempted to blow up an airplane with explosives sewn in his underwear was encouraged and directed by Awlaki to hit the plane with full force.
The American intelligence community has been trying to kill him ever since and came extremely close to doing so this past May when an earlier drone attack targeted a convoy of vehicles that Awlaki was believed to be riding in. The Yemeni American escaped that strike unscathed, providing the United States with an even greater incentive to find him and finish the job.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (APAP), a franchise group that the Obama Administration has called the most lethal and dangerous terrorist threat to the American homeland, has not had many bad days. Friday was the exception. Not only was Awlaki killed; his associate and chief propagandist, Samir Khan, another American, was neutralized in the same attack as well.
Khan is better known as the editor of AQAP’s online magazine, Inspire, which releases articles about its martyrs and lengthy statements urging Muslims in the West to go after their host countries.
In a single day, AQAP lost two of its more charismatic figures. But the organization is still up and running and will likely continue to run until the Yemeni political crisis is resolved and the Yemeni government extends its authority throughout its tribal frontier.
For President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Awlaki’s demise could not have come at a better time. Saleh has been battling his own citizens in Yemen’s major cities for eight months. His family, which controls the country’s security services, is besieged by tribal fighters supportive of the opposition (the Ahmar family) and former soldiers of his own military (General Ali Mohsen).
The United States, the president’s biggest military benefactor, have distanced themselves from Saleh’s regime as the protests grew larger and bloodier with so sign of any political opening. It was only a few months ago that the Yemeni president was burned and severely wounded by an assassination attempt at his palace. The perpetuators are still unknown.
The latest counterterrorism success against AQAP may be the most significant yet for Saleh, potentially consolidating his domestic position in relation to his armed rivals. In any event, it will strengthen Saleh’s argument that he is the only man capable of stopping an Al Qaeda takeover of the entire country — a claim still ludicrous to millions of Yemeni protesters but buzzing louder in the corridors of power in Washington.
There is no clear indication as to whether the United States will now give Saleh and his regime a pass on stepping down from power and living a life of leisure in a third country, which would kill any chances of improving America’s image with the Yemeni population. The Yemeni intelligence service is rumored to have been a key interlocutor and partner during the Awlaki operation — a rumor that if substantiated, could give American officials pause in their call for the Yemeni president to quit.