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Al-Awlaki's Death Leaves Gap in al-Qaida

Al-Awlaki's Death Leaves Gap in al-Qaida
Al-Awlaki's Death Leaves Gap in al-Qaida

The death of a senior al-Qaida figure by a U.S. air strike in Yemen leaves a gap in the senior ranks of what counterterrorism officials say is the most lethal of the group's franchises, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But how significant a gap is open to question. Was Anwar al-Awlaki primarily an inspirational figure to would-be jihadists? Or did he play a significant operational role for the group as well?

Former CIA director Michael Hayden says the death of Anwar al-Awlaki is significant, but not as significant as the death of Osama bin Laden. In an interview with VOA, Hayden says Awlaki's death will not have great operational impact on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula because his primary role was as an inspirational figure.

"It's a big deal," said Hayden. "And if you regard, as I do, the most serious current threat to be the self-radicalized, one-off, low-threshold person legitimately inside the United States, this undercuts that effort over the long term because he truly was an inspirational figure. But in terms of making al-Qaida shudder as an organization, this isn't in the same league as bin Laden."

With his flawless, idiom-laden English skills, the American-born Islamic cleric could reach disaffected young Muslims in the West and inspire them to mount attacks. It was a skill precious to al-Qaida as it sought to ramp up attacks on Western targets, but found itself increasingly constrained by Western counterterrorism efforts.

But Hayden points out that Awlaki was viewed in the U.S. as more significant than he actually was because of his background.

"He was an American," said Hayden. "He knew our jargon and knew our culture, could relate to people here. And because of that - how to put this? It was much easier for us to understand the threat coming from him because of who he was and his background, if you know what I mean. It's almost a natural that he floats to the top in the broad popular coverage of the threat, because he was easier for us to talk about, easier for us to explain, easier for us to focus on."

An analysis by the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, cautions against overstating Awlaki's role in AQAP. It points out that he was not the group's leader - that post is held by Nasir al-Wahayshi - and was not even the group's primary religious leader.

But Michael Leiter, who until earlier this year was chief of America's National Counterterrorism Center, disagrees on Awlaki's significance.

In a separate VOA interview, Leiter says Awlaki played a very large part in planning AQAP's operations. He points to Awlaki's pivotal role in such plots at trying to blow up an aircraft over Detroit on December 25, 2009, and a plan to plant bombs on U.S.-bound cargo planes as evidence that his death will have a profound impact on AQAP operationally as well as ideologically.

"I think it's significant on both the operational and inspirational front," said Leiter. "First and foremost, Anwar al-Awlaki was in fact the chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He had planned and directed attacks against the U.S., most notably the failed Christmas Day attack, and then the plot to attack two cargo planes. And his loss in that sense is very, very significant."

Leiter says Awlaki's American background made him operationally creative, thinking up plots aimed at harming America psychologically as well as physically, and seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

"He was quite imaginative," Leiter added. "And he also understood American psychology in a way that led him to try attacks that I think he understood would be particularly terrorizing. So he was both imaginative and also insightful in many ways."

Analysts expect AQAP to try to regroup to make up for Awlaki's loss. Former counterterrorism chief Leiter says Awlaki, like bin Laden, was obsessed with attacking the U.S. and the West, and believes his death may cause AQAP to shift its focus back somewhat to local targets in Yemen.

He adds that there are others in the group who will continue to try to inspire - which happens to be the title of Awlaki's English-language jihadist magazine - more disaffected young Muslims to attack the U.S. But he says they will find that difficult.

"They still have some very dangerous people over there," said Leiter. "They have expertise that helps create some of the weapons that were used in Awlaki's attacks. There are other English-speaking ideologues there who are attempting to radicalize Westerners and plotting against the United States. But Awlaki was iconic in a way that these others, I think, truly are not to a broader audience."

Awlaki's final issue of "Inspire," published in July, contains a eulogy for Osama bin Laden, a poem for the prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and pictorial instruction on how to handle an AK-47 automatic assault rifle.