Awlaki Meets the American Drone

A multifaceted victory in the war on terror.

The number one inspirer of homegrown jihad in the West, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen along with Samir Khan, the editor of his English-language online magazine. Both were US-born jihadists busy waging war against their home country. Awlaki’s toxic preaching will still be creating terrorists around the world, but his role will be very difficult for the group to replace. With eight senior leaders killed or captured since May, it will be nearly impossible for Al-Qaeda to convince its supporters that it is in good shape.

There is disagreement about Awlaki’s exact position in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but there is no question that he was a rising star with enormous influence. President Obama described him as the “leader of external operations” for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) when he announced Awlaki's death. The U.S. was able to finally track him down after several near-misses by arresting and interrogating Muslim-Americans who came back home after being trained by AQAP. The interviews enabled the U.S. to determine that Awlaki was living within a 100-kilometer area within Yemen. The CIA learned about a previously known ex-wife of Awlaki’s in Ireland, and she became a crucial source of information in January. She gave a long list of relatives and disclosed their closeness to Awlaki. She mentioned who lived and met with him in Yemen, and gave a phone number for one individual living in Sanaa. The recruitment of Awlaki’s ex-wife was critical in ultimately finding him. Three weeks ago, the Yemenis captured a courier of the terrorist leader, who pinpointed his location.

CIA drones monitored Awlaki overhead as he moved between underground bunkers in Marib and Jawf Provinces for three weeks after leaving Shabwa Province out of security concerns. On September 30, Awlaki and his cohorts finished breakfast and began the 700-yard trek from their safehouse in Jawf Province to their cars. Two Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles were overhead. The first missile struck, and Awlaki and the rest of the survivors ran to a pickup truck that was then destroyed. At least 7 were killed, including Awlaki, his bodyguards, and Samir Khan, his protégé that put together his English-language online magazine, Inspire. Some on the Left, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and libertarians on the Right, like presidential candidates Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, were upset that the CIA killed an American citizen without due process.

It is difficult to exaggerate Awlaki’s impact on radicalization in the West. His sermons have influenced practically every case of homegrown terrorism. Hundreds of Americans and Europeans have trained under him. Up to three dozen Americans that have served time in prison have gone to Yemen, including some described as “blonde-haired, blue-eyed types.” He is thought to have played an operational role in the cargo plane bomb plot, the Fort Hood shooting, the underwear bomb plot, a plot to attack British Airways and as growing evidence indicates, the 9/11 attacks.

He has inspired a long list of terrorists. This includes Americans who sought to join al-Shabaab in Somalia; the soldier who used Inspire to try to carry out a second Fort Hood attack; the Times Square bomber; the group that targeted Fort Dix; a British student who tried to stab a parliamentarian; aspiring homegrown terrorists in Texas and Illinois; the Pakistani-American who wanted to bomb the D.C. metro; the “Toronto 18”; and Ali al-Timimi of the “Virginia Jihad Network.” Western recruits traveling to Pakistan sometimes stopped in Yemen to meet Awlaki and even groups that have disagreed with Al-Qaeda, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, promote his preaching.

The death of Samir Khan, an American from Charlotte, North Carolina, deserves more attention. He ran a major pro-Bin Laden website that hosted videos of terrorist attacks. He commented on one, “You can even see an American soldier hiding during the ambush like a baby!” He prayed that Allah would kill Rusty Shackleford of the My Pet Jawa blog and to break the hands and poison the tongue of Robert Spencer. Despite his open support of terrorism, he was able to board a flight to Yemen in October 2009. There, he became the mind behind Inspire, AQAP’s English-language online magazine.

Awlaki lives on through his preaching. He has a massive following on the Internet, with nearly 2,000 YouTube videos featuring his lectures. The FBI has found that his sermons are common in prison libraries, with his more tame material being sold in Islamic supermarkets and stores. He also provides a classic example of how to practice al-taqiyya. He condemned 9/11 and fashioned himself as a moderate, resulting in praise from National Public Radio and the New York Times. The Pentagon even enlisted him in its outreach to the Muslim community, having him speak at lunches.

Awlaki’s influence extends beyond his life, but Al-Qaeda will be hard-pressed to find an English-language speaker that will be as successful as him. He will no longer be able to egg on acts of terrorism or provide preaching tied to current events. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s former mentor, Dr. al-Fadl, preaches that Muslims who violate Allah’s will are defeated in battle. His death is a huge addition to Al-Qaeda’s troubles, as its supporters must be silently questioning the group’s survival. Radical Islam is much more than Al-Qaeda, but with the group’s top leaders being taken out at a steady pace, the Islamists will have to look somewhere other than Al-Qaeda for encouragement.