Awlaki's name is all over recent attempts on the West. He is allegedly linked to a string of recent attacks, including the mass shooting at Fort Hood, the failed attack on a passenger plane destined for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the parcel-bomb plot in 2010. Last November, Roshonara Choudhry was found guilty of trying to murder British member of Parliament Stephen Timms; according to media reports Choudhry stabbed Timms as punishment for his support of the Iraq war after watching more than 100 hours of Awlaki's sermons. This January, a Yemeni court convicted Awlaki in absentia for his role in inciting the October 2010 murder of a French oil worker. And British Airways employee Rajib Karim was convicted in February in a British court of several counts -- including conspiring with Awlaki -- in connection with a plot to attack British Airways flights.
There is no question that Awlaki is a brilliant and captivating orator. One Yemeni official referred privately to Awlaki's sermons as convincing and dangerous. For non-native Arabic listeners, his ability to shift between perfect, idiomatic English and flawless Quranic Arabic is powerful. Frequent hadith references and examples from Islamic history provide an air of authenticity and depth that he uses to great effect. Among his recordings are "War Against Islam," "State of the Ummah," and "The Dust Will Never Settle Down" -- powerfully motivating and inspirational speeches.
But Awlaki is not, as some reports have claimed, the leader of AQAP. The group's head is Nasser al-Wihishi. Moreover, Awlaki is not the spiritual guide of the group or even likely to be on its sharia committee. He does, however, play a leading role among those active within AQAP in mounting attacks against the United States and the West.
It's not purely his role in AQAP's foreign operations that's worrisome. Awlaki's ability to radicalize and recruit vulnerable audiences in the West -- especially those that are not on authorities' radar -- is a real concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials. His propaganda is easily available to English-speaking audiences via YouTube and raises the risk of homegrown terrorism in the United States. There was probably a time when the Western media overhyped his significance in global terrorism, but there is no doubt that Awlaki is a dangerous figure today.
All this has made him a priority target of kinetic U.S. counterterrorism operations. It was reported that President Barack Obama authorized the assassination of Awlaki in April 2010, and he was the apparent target of a U.S. drone strike days after bin Laden was killed. Chances are that the United States will be able to capture or kill him eventually, but that doesn't end the danger.
The most omnipresent terrorist threat the United States faces today is the opportunistic attacks that are either homegrown or stem from weak or failing states, not the spectacular attacks that take months of preparation. A catastrophic attack -- while still the intention of al Qaeda's core -- is much less likely than smaller operations that are harder to pre-emptively detect. And those are the kind of attacks Awlaki has the power to inspire.
In the end, it doesn't help much to ask who the next bin Laden is, since the problem is bigger than any one man. Regardless of whose image captivates the world, al Qaeda figures, including Awlaki, are busy plotting terrorist mayhem. And Washington needs to do all it can to reduce the risk of another attack.