Gone But Not Forgotten

Anwar al-Awlaki might be dead, but his legacy of hatred and radicalism will live on.

The apparent killing of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone on Friday, Sept. 30, is not the end of this unique figure, perhaps one of the most misunderstood men in the annals of terrorism. Many questions remain about his exact role within al Qaeda, in particular his status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But even the most hyped descriptions of Awlaki's "operational" capabilities pale in comparison with the force of his personality. Ultimately, his legacy will not be a litany of bombs exploded and airplanes hijacked, but of hearts and minds moved to hate.  

There is no question that Awlaki filled some sort of operational niche within al Qaeda. He personally emailed one would-be Western militant after another, urging them to cast aside all other ambitions in favor of taking violent action in their hometowns. He was allegedly sighted at AQAP training camps. He personally guided the 2009 underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to AQAP's bomb-maker and claimed credit for the 2010 UPS cargo-plane bomb plot, mocking the United States for spending billions of dollars to prevent an attack that cost only $4,200 to mount.

But Awlaki's exploits as a working terrorist are small potatoes compared with his impact as a personality, a storyteller, and a manipulator of minds.

Before most Americans ever heard of Awlaki the terrorist, Muslim Americans were very familiar with Awlaki, the inspirational speaker. Over the course of several years, Awlaki issued an incredible body of work that -- on the surface -- had little to do with terrorism or al Qaeda.

His primary format was audio, where his compelling voice and personality could best serve his message. Among his works are more than 50 CDs relating the life of the Prophet Mohammed, 21 CDs on the other prophets of Islam, 22 CDs on the afterlife, at least 33 CDs on the companions of Mohammed, several important lectures concerned primarily with validating violent interpretations of jihad, and finally open calls to violence and an explicit embrace of terrorism.

Awlaki took traditional Islamic sources and breathed life into them, transforming religious texts into gripping and emotional stories, often with substantial embellishment. He tailored his idiom and analogy to Western language and culture, but his most important skill was the ability to transform often skeletal sources into gripping tales.

Telling a good story is not necessarily heroic, but it counts for a lot. Awlaki wasn't like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or AQAP's emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. These true leaders of al Qaeda were renowned for their kinetic achievements, whether military or terrorist. Their allure and their appeal were built entirely on their credibility as supposedly "holy" warriors.

Awlaki, in contrast, was well established as an Islamic teacher before he turned to the dark side. Although some dispute the quality of his scholarship, it was good enough to make him a success. His popularity was indisputable.

If the first component of Awlaki's legacy is his body of work, the second is surely the story he tried to tell about himself. That tale would be familiar to viewers of classic American Westerns such as Shane and Unforgiven. It is the story of a man driven over the edge by injustice until, finally provoked beyond his ability to bear, he picks up a gun and wreaks vengeance.

This narrative is fundamentally false, but that doesn't mean it won't endure. Awlaki had his fingers in al Qaeda's cookie jar for a long time before he came out with an explicit call to violence. But his lectures and his public statements allow his supporters to argue for the view of Awlaki as a genuine martyr.

Martyrdom is nothing new to jihadi terrorism -- in fact, it's a major selling point. But Awlaki's martyrdom has a different context. For most Americans, bin Laden sprang into existence as a full-blown militant. What little experience bin Laden had of life before jihad is a forgotten footnote in most accounts.

Not only did Awlaki have a life before jihad, but he lived that life in the United States, as a citizen and (at least on the surface) as someone laboring to forgive and understand the land where he was born. Even as he secretly met with 9/11 hijackers and friends of blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, he was crafting a public persona as a moderate Muslim. Through his pulpit in San Diego and later Falls Church, Virginia, and through lectures distributed on CDs and over the Internet, he reached at least thousands of people with devotional stories that were overtly moderate, or at least embedded his more extreme views deep in the text.

With his alleged death, the narrative that Awlaki wanted to sell us is now complete: the reasonable man, pushed too far, who reluctantly took up the gun and was finally killed by the enemy he dared face.

The effects of this story will likely reverberate for years to come; in the short term, Awlaki's death will probably elevate interest in his entire body of work, from beginning to end.

All this highlights the peculiar dilemma of how the West deals with terrorists of al Qaeda's stripe. Al Qaeda has predicated its war against the United States on the premise that the West is persecuting Muslims and attacking Muslim countries. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have reinforced that idea, for some people, and the sanctioning of the "targeted killing" campaign against Awlaki raises especially unfortunate overtones concerning due process for American citizens.  

Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, in his book, Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror, borrows the analogy of Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" to describe al Qaeda's strategy for fighting the West. They hope that we will punch ourselves into economic exhaustion and then topple to defeat.

The strategy is broader than this, however. In addition to the economic asymmetries (over which Awlaki gloated in his magazine, Inspire), there are the unintended consequences of the U.S. kinetic actions in the Middle East and beyond. War always features collateral damage. When Marines crash into a country or drones hover above, they incur a number of costs. Civilians killed by U.S. forces become a propaganda tool for its enemies. The disruption of existing orders -- as seen in Iraq and now feared in Libya -- provides opportunities for radical movements to operate, recruit, fundraise, and even occupy territory.

The death of bin Laden, and now of Awlaki, may offer Americans a chance to salve the festering wounds of 9/11. In the final analysis, despite the potential for negative repercussions, the successful targeting of these larger-than-life figures provides an opportunity to take a deep breath and evaluate what comes next in the seemingly never-ending war against al Qaeda.

There is now an opportunity to raise fresh ideas and evaluate how the U.S. metrics for success against terrorism -- the killing of marquee enemies -- ultimately play out in the global battlefield. In death, inspirational figures like Awlaki and bin Laden can never disappoint their admirers. Their strengths and their weaknesses are frozen in amber, and their ideas and images will endure. The ghostly voice of Anwar al-Awlaki will stream over the Internet for a very long time to come. We should not assume it will be any less persuasive just because he's dead.



Where Do We Go from Here?

Five things that Palestine could do to push forward the quest for statehood.

In a perfunctory meeting on Wednesday morning, Sept. 28, as expected, and per its usual procedure for dealing with would-be new United Nations members since the late 1960s, the Security Council referred the Palestinian application to one of its standing committees. The committee -- which meets and votes in secret and requires unanimity to refer the matter back to the Security Council -- is scheduled to begin considering the application on Friday morning. The membership process usually takes weeks, but can take only days (as with the most recent U.N. member, South Sudan) or years (as in the case of Kuwait). Neither the committee nor the Security Council is under any specific obligation to act on the request in a limited time frame, so the process theoretically could drag on indefinitely.

Because the required nine-vote Security Council majority is by no means yet ensured, and because the United States is publicly committed to vetoing a Security Council vote if one ever takes place anyway, full U.N. membership is effectively barred for the Palestinians under the present circumstances. Therefore, the application will have to serve as leverage to achieve something else if it is to produce anything meaningful. So what options does this leave the Palestinians? Let's take a look at five, moving from the least to the most confrontational:

1) Declare moral and political victory and move on.

The Palestinians have made their moral and legal case for statehood in President Mahmoud Abbas's speech and their formal application. And if the established international peace process should decisively fail, they do have other options, no matter how risky. The Security Council referral to the committee buys everyone time to look for compromises, particularly given that the Palestinian membership bid cannot succeed. If they choose not to press the issue in the Security Council, the Palestinians could seek advantages in other venues, as follows.

2) Work with the Quartet on more advantageous language for renewed negotiations. It is highly significant that the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. Secretariat -- issued a statement in conjunction with Abbas's address and the Palestinian application. The statement showed that the Quartet has not resolved the differences that emerged in its ranks this year, particularly over whether Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." But it reasserted the importance and viability of the established processes.

Working with the Palestinians and the Israelis separately, the Quartet could issue a statement laying out the framework for new negotiations, timetables, and even clearer terms of reference that might provide the Palestinians with a significant diplomatic achievement -- even if the renewal of direct talks with a reasonable prospect of success has to wait until political circumstances in the United States, in Israel, and among the Palestinians become more favorable.

3) Pursue a General Assembly resolution in cooperation with the EU.

The Palestinians are well positioned to win almost any of a number of possible resolutions they could bring before the General Assembly, but they can do this in either a cooperative or a confrontational manner with Western states. They could work with the European Union, which is badly and uncomfortably divided on the issue, to craft language that Europeans could unite behind and that would protect them from the most serious American and Israeli retaliation, as well as provide them significant diplomatic advances. Many important EU member states, particularly France and Spain, are supportive of Palestinian nonmember U.N. observer status, but others are concerned that this would provide Palestinians' with access to the International Criminal Court and other law enforcement mechanisms to pursue charges against Israel. Some Europeans have been working on a new legal status for Palestine that would be an upgrade from the PLO observer mission but would protect Israel from potentially facing such charges.

4) Pursue a General Assembly resolution independently.

Palestinians could independently pursue nonmember observer-state status, and they would no doubt have a majority to secure that. But this could precipitate a crisis not only with the United States -- which has threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- but probably with some important European countries as well, the two main reliable external donors to the PA's annual budget. A crisis in relations with the Americans would also greatly complicate the resumption of negotiations, which Abbas and other Palestinian leaders acknowledge will be essential for the actual realization of an independent Palestine.

The least aggressive independent action the Palestinians could pursue in the General Assembly would be a resolution acknowledging their right to statehood, but not securing nonmember state status. The most aggressive would be a resolution under the "Uniting for Peace" formula laid down in General Assembly Resolution 377A (1950), which was designed to overcome differences among Security Council permanent members on urgent matters. This would have to be tabled following a U.S. veto in the Security Council and would authorize member states to take coercive measures "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This might be interpreted as authorizing sanctions and other coercive measures against Israel. However, numerous countries have had sanctions and boycotts against Israel and, indeed, the Palestinians for decades without the authorization of Resolution 377. More importantly, a 377 resolution would not address or enhance the question of Palestinian statehood or U.N. membership, and in that sense is completely off topic.

5) Try to force a vote in the Security Council.

The Palestinians are trying to secure commitments for a nine-vote majority and could try to force a vote on their application in the Security Council, even though they know this will ultimately be vetoed by the United States. Palestinians believe they have recently won over Gabon and Nigeria, meaning that, in addition to Brazil, China, India, Lebanon, Russia, and South Africa, they have eight commitments to vote yes. The rest of the members are likely to vote no or abstain. The Palestinians are focusing their efforts on Colombia and Bosnia, both of which will be difficult to convince. Alone among South American countries, Columbia does not recognize Palestine, and it has an important security relationship with Israel. Bosnia, which is a confederation of three ethnic communities, is divided on the matter, with Muslim Bosniaks and Croats supporting Palestinian membership but Serbs opposing it because of a potential similar application by Kosovo.

If Palestinians cannot secure a nine-vote majority, then there is virtually no rationale for pressing their case in the Security Council. But if they can, some Palestinians and their allies argue that they could achieve a "moral victory" by forcing the United States to use its veto to block Palestinian membership. Such a moral victory, however, could come at a tremendous cost -- loss of U.S. and other Western aid, a souring of relations with the United States, and unspecified harsh retaliation threatened by numerous Israeli leaders, including potentially withholding Palestinian tax revenues that make up the bulk of the PA's annual budget.

For the moment, the Security Council has bought everyone time by referring the matter to the committee and has averted but not foreclosed a universally damaging confrontation. The various compromise tracks are very much in the Palestinians' interests, and there are promising signs they understand this. In defiance of all expectations, while the Israeli cabinet was unable to agree on any unified response to the Quartet's statement, by contrast, following a meeting of its executive committee, PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo welcomed the statement, though he also reiterated the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze.

If they play their cards right, Palestinian leaders will have made the moral case for their statehood, demonstrated that they do have options outside the established peace process, and secured new diplomatic leverage and political capital at home. But if they mishandle diplomacy in the coming weeks and months, they could face a very dangerous crisis in relations with the West, and especially with the United States, which they can ill afford.