Hitherto, the discussion on this forum surrounding the Obama administration’s decision to place Anwar al-Awlaki on the U.S. kill-or-capture list has focused on the decision’s legal and moral implications. From a national security standpoint, the elimination of al-Awlaki — an unequivocal enemy of the United States — would make America safer, as Andy McCarthy and Daniel Foster have argued. The radical cleric has been connected to nearly a dozen terror cases in the U.S., Britain, and Canada over the past decade, including 9/11. He provided encouragement and justification for Nidal Hasan to murder thirteen individuals at Ft. Hood, and he allegedly had a hand in the Christmas Day attack of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP). Perhaps most alarmingly, al-Awlaki has contributed to the radicalization of youth around the world through his English-language messages advocating violent jihad against the United States (the most recent of which came in late March) and his skillful online outreach, as my colleague Katherine Zimmerman argues here.
However, any illusion that the eradication of al-Awlaki will eliminate, or even significantly reduce, the terror threat emanating from Yemen is fantasy. Al-Awlaki appears to serve as a key interlocutor for American and European jihadists traveling to Yemen to join AQAP, and he may have a voice in the group’s leadership council. He is, however, certainly not a top leader or deputy within the group. The United States and Yemeni forces must target with even more vigor than they do al-Awlaki the group’s most senior leaders — all of whom are Yemeni or Saudi and have led the resurgence of AQAP — in order to mitigate the immediate threat the group poses to U.S. interests.
Above all, though, simply killing or capturing Anwar al-Awlaki or other senior AQAP operatives will not eliminate the long-term terror threat originating in Yemen. Yemen is literally on the brink of becoming a failed state. The country is running out of oil and water, Salafists have penetrated the security apparatus, the population is growing at 3 percent per year, at least 35 percent of its people are unemployed, about half of them live on less than two dollars per day, corruption is rampant in every sector of the society, and anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism pervade the education system. All of these factors have fueled al-Qaeda’s growth in the country.
A CIA drone strike killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002, and Yemeni forces arrested his successor in 2003. But the conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to establish a stronghold in Yemen remained, allowing AQAP to become one of the most powerful al-Qaeda franchises in the world. Until the Obama administration develops and implements a comprehensive Yemen strategy, which must include both counterterrorism and soft-power prongs, the killing or capturing of Anwar al-Awlaki or any other AQAP operative will not suffice in eliminating the terror threat emanating from within its borders.
– Chris Harnisch is a research analyst and Gulf of Aden team lead for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.