A U.S. drone attack in Yemen dealt Al-Qaeda a “major blow” last Friday, killing U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and with him, Samir Khan, editor of Al-Qaeda’s internet English-language magazine Inspire. President Obama described the death of Al-Awlaki, the principal target of the drone attack, as “another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Awlaki’s importance to Al-Qaeda was two-fold: he played both an operational role, and a propagandist, particularly effective when utilizing his fluent English and smooth oratory skills to reach disenchanted Western Muslims susceptible to extremism like Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab.
Along with Awlaki, and fellow propagandist Samir Khan, Al-Qaeda bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri may have also been killed, according to two unnamed U.S. officials who spoke to U.S.-broadcaster CBS News. This was denied yesterday by a top Yemeni official, who said that Al-Asiri was not amongst those found killed after the attack.
The operation targeting Al-Awlaki, code-named ‘Operation Troy,’ was said to have been executed with President Obama’s explicit orders. The decision was condemned by Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who argued that to kill a U.S. citizen without recourse to the proper legal channels represents a move “much further along in the disintegration of American jurisprudence.” Litigation director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Ben Wizner agreed with Ron Paul, arguing: “If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state.”
The openSecurity verdict
Awlaki’s death has inevitably reignited the debate regarding the ‘War on Terror,’ its means and the definition of its end.
Awlaki’s and Khan’s deaths provoke controversy because both were American citizens. In an article for The New York Times, Scott Shane traced the outlines of the ensuing debate. On the one hand, critics may point to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees that no person “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” and may berate the fact that no public legal process had preceded the decision to make Awlaki the first U.S. citizen on the CIA’s list of Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists to be captured or killed. On the other hand, defenders of the move may argue the unfeasibility of arresting him amidst the strife in Yemen, and point to the imminent threat that Awlaki allegedly posed to the lives of Americans. President Obama did just that in his speech, reminding the world of Awlaki’s links to terrorist plots including the Christmas 2009 Detroit airline bomb attempt, and the Fort Hood incident.
Awlaki’s death comes four months after Bin Laden’s death last May. In those four months, the U.S. has killed seven other senior Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. In an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Daniel Byman, Director of Research at The Brookings Institution’s Saban Centre, comments: “No terrorist leader is irreplaceable.” Al-Qaeda and other groups “have a deep bench,” but “not an infinite one.” Thus, Byman concluded, Al-Qaeda “will have a tough time replacing someone like Awlaki.”
And yet, against celebrating too wildly, it is worth remembering that wars on terrorist groups are never won by assassination and military means alone. Indeed, killing Awlaki and Bin Laden comes with a danger of providing each with a legacy fitting for their supporters: martyrdom. A heroic narrative is thus constructed, which can see each terrorist continue to win recruits even in death.
The war against Al-Qaeda is as much a battle of ideas as it is a series of military campaigns and attacks. And the idea of martyrdom for a just cause is a powerful one in any society (just think back to the language of World War Two and the idea of fighting to the death to defeat Nazism).
Worryingly for Al-Qaeda, a more potent idea is emerging in the Middle East that eats away at their edifice: the voice of freedom from the Jasmine Revolutions. With the rise of Arab youth demanding freedom, dignity and civil rights, a narrative is beginning to take root in the Middle East whose strength emanates from the fact that it does not come with a ‘made in the west’ logo stamped on it.
While Al-Qaeda’s story is one of blaming the west and ‘the infidels’ for the decline of the Muslim world, the Jasmine Revolution tells a different story. The enemy is not a foreigner, but rather the corrupt despotic regimes that have held this resource-plenty part of the world for far too long. The means of fighting is not through terrorism, but rather peaceful protests and active civic participation.
In the short-to-medium term, protests in the Arab world do not guarantee a brighter future for the upcoming generations. Indeed, in Libya they have offered opportunities for Al-Qaeda to prosper. In Bahrain, they have been met by brutal suppression and the restoration of autocracy, symbolised by the Bahraini state’s recent moves to torture and imprison doctors whose only crime was to deliver medical aid to protesters who had been beaten and shot at by police.
But suppose the spirit of the Jasmine revolutions captured so majestically at Tahrir Square or Pearl Roundabout can be sustained in the long run? A spirit of introspection, self-criticism and collective-action aimed at reform.
If Arab youth can succeed to keep that spirit alive, then they will have dealt Al-Qaeda a far more lethal blow than any drone or special operation can ever deliver.