The death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden led immediately to excessive speculation over who will replace him at the helm of the organization and as the face of global terrorism. Latest news reports indicate that Egyptian militant Saif al-Adel has been appointed the interim leader of al Qaeda while the organization works to appoint a permanent head. Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand Yemeni-American preacher linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's local branch, is one of the most frequently mentioned candidates. But despite his high-profile notoriety, incendiary rhetoric, and numerous alleged links to significant terrorist plots and attacks, Awlaki will not supplant bin Laden.
The truth is that bin Laden was an irreplaceable figure as both the head of al Qaeda and the leader of the global jihadi movement. Awlaki may lack many of the qualifications and experiences necessary to fill those shoes, but he poses a serious threat to U.S. national security nevertheless. And as the political situation and conditions in Yemen continue to worsen, the dangers associated with Awlaki and AQAP only get more severe.
Awlaki's credentials come up short in the competition to take over from bin Laden. He does not have serious religious credentials, nor can he boast of combat experience. As far we know, he did not have a relationship with bin Laden and the two never even met. And despite being very well known among English speakers, Awlaki is not nearly as well known by Arabic speakers who make up the bulk of the global jihadi movement. It is important to note that this is beginning to change. During recent conversations I had in Riyadh, Saudi security officials warned that Awlaki's profile is rising in the Arabic-speaking world.
Awlaki, perhaps most importantly, does not engender the same feelings of love and affection that bin Laden did. Very soft-spoken, almost gentle, bin Laden was widely admired in the Arabian Peninsula for abandoning a life of luxury, affluence, and comfort to follow his beliefs. While many disagreed with his actions and condemned the violence he inspired, bin Laden was viewed as a pious and religious man who stuck to his convictions -- no matter the consequences. Although a potent speaker with the power to inspire others, Awlaki does not generate such broad fondness.
But even if Awlaki is not poised to assume bin Laden's mantle, he should not be dismissed.
Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1971 to Yemeni parents, Awlaki spent his early childhood in the United States before returning to Yemen. In 1991 he came back to the United States to attend college and graduate school. During this time he also worked in several mosques and Islamic centers. According to several reports, it was in this period that Awlaki began to draw attention. The 9/11 Commission report raises unanswered questions about Awlaki's alleged interactions with several of the 9/11 conspirators, which include contact with two of the hijackers while he preached at a San Diego mosque.