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Vendredi, 30 Septembre 2011 14:00

Qaida's YouTube Preacher Is Killed In Yemen

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Qaida's YouTube Preacher Is Killed In Yemen
An American citizen responsible for taking al-Qaida’s message viral has been killed in Yemen, according to the Yemeni government. As a target, the Obama administration considered him second only to Osama bin Laden. But don’t expect al-Qaida’s surging Yemeni cell to grow much weaker as a result.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born extremist, was reportedly killed while traveling in southern Yemen, his base of operations for years. The Yemeni government made the announcement of Awlaki’s death on Friday, but left out the circumstances — notably, who killed Awlaki.

Agence France Presse reports that “tribal sources” said Awlaki was killed “in air strike that hit two vehicles in Marib province.” If true, that means the U.S. killed Awlaki. Not only does Yemen lack the capability for a precision air strike, but joint CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces teams have stepped up both intelligence and strike operations in the past year, including armed drone flights. Indeed, Rep. Peter King, the chairman of the House homeland-security committee, jumped the gun by praising President Obama and U.S. intelligence for Awlaki’s death.

It would also mean that the Obama administration assassinated an American citizen without due process of law. Ever since evidence emerged in late 2009 that Awlaki communicated with both Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the U.S. has launched numerous air strikes in the hope of killing him. A bevy of U.S. counterterrorism officials have testified that Awlaki plays an “operational” role in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. None have offered any evidence for that conclusion.

Whether or not Awlaki in fact had any operational role in al-Qaida, his influence over its propaganda operations is undisputed. For years, Awlaki has preached al-Qaida’s message in English on YouTube. It was a clear propaganda coup for the terrorist network: an American citizen, speaking English, constructed religious arguments for killing his fellow Americans. The administration prevailed on YouTube to take many of Awlaki’s videos down, out of the fear that YouTube trollers would heed the call, but keeping them down has been difficult. A YouTube search on Friday yields several of Awlaki’s conspiracy-soaked sermons.

Awlaki’s fingerprints are also all over Inspire, al-Qaida’s English-language online magazine, published from Yemen. Several issues have featured interviews with Awlaki or articles he penned. His message has stayed consistent: Muslims have an obligation to attack the perfidious United States. According to the terror-watching organization IntelCenter, Awlaki was working on yet another Inspire piece justifying the killing of innocents, titled “Targeting Populations of Countries at War with Muslims.” It may yet be released posthumously. But Awlaki’s most recent published piece attempted to co-opt the Arab Spring for the terrorist movement, cheering on Yemen’s ongoing revolt.

It’s true that al-Qaida has benefited significantly from Yemeni political turmoil. But very little of its growing strength is attributable to Awlaki.

The collapse of the Yemeni government has allowed al-Qaida to essentially run rampant in the southern governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. Police have been powerless to stop al-Qaida fighters from overrunning their headquarters — prompting U.S. drone strikes. “At the
moment, no entity in Yemen is speaking up in Arabic against [al-Qaida]
,” Yemen expert Gregory Johnson wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations policy paper this week, “which means that the organization is able to shape its public message uncontested.”

Except that messaging was Awlaki’s biggest known contribution to al-Qaida. Despite some speculation, he was never tapped to lead al-Qaida after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden. In Yemen, the local al-Qaida cell is believed to be headed by former Guantanamo detainee Othman al Ghamdi, a former member of the Saudi Arabian military, along with emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi. al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has tried and failed to pull off terrorist attacks against the U.S. mainland, but there is no clear evidence so far that Awlaki played a role in planning them.

In other words, Awlaki’s death means al-Qaida is likely to take a propaganda loss — its most prominent English speaker is an ex-metalhead — but not a substantive military one.

“The death of Anwar al-Awlaki is a significant blow to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It will especially impact the group’s ability to recruit, inspire and raise funds as al-Awlaki’s influence and ability to connect to a broad demographic of potential supporters was unprecedented,” IntelCenter assessed on Friday morning. “However, AQAP remains one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda regional arms both in its region and for the direct threat it poses to the US following three recent failed attacks. … AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is responsible for expanding the group’s focus to conduct attacks on US soil, remains in charge of the group and further attempts to conduct attacks in the US are expected.”

Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials have spent the early morning vouching for Awlaki’s death. The big questions facing them now: will they release any evidence confirming Awlaki’s “operational” role in al-Qaida? And will they explain their legal rationale for killing a vile, noxious propagandist who was nevertheless an American citizen? When the ACLU — where, full disclosure, my wife works — sued to learn why targeting Awlaki is legal, the government shut the case down by arguing that very rationale was a state secret.

On the other hand, if the attribution of Awlaki’s death remains hazy — Rep. King aside — then the government will probably be able to dodge such inconvenient questions. Watch to see if the Obama team accepts responsibility for today’s successful attack.


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