The drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who helped lead al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from its haven in Yemen, is far more than yet another killing of another senior terrorist leader. Certainly, it is, as President Barack Obama declared, "another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates." But it is more than that too because Awlaki, more so than other al Qaeda leaders, posed an unusual danger to the U.S. homeland.
The al Qaeda core leadership based in Pakistan has been under siege from drone strikes for several years now, curtailing its ability to communicate and plan operations -- a campaign to which the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden added a dramatic punctuation point. But the dwindling of the core organization has made its affiliates in the Maghreb, Iraq, and elsewhere even more important to the jihadi cause. Nowhere has that been truer than in Yemen, and indeed senior intelligence officials have warned recently that AQAP is becoming more dangerous than the al Qaeda core itself.
Awlaki was at the heart of this threat. U.S. officials linked him to the near-miss attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the 2010 plot to use explosives cunningly hidden in packages to down two cargo jets. Either of these attacks, had they succeeded, would have been blows to the U.S. homeland. Awlaki also had links to Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspected perpetrator of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that killed 13 people, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
From his perch in Yemen, Awlaki posed multiple threats. Because the Yemeni government was weak, or at times even complicit with the jihadists, he and his AQAP fellows had the operational freedom to plan sophisticated attacks directed at the United States. While other affiliates also had more freedom to maneuver, they focused on their locality and their region -- so al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hits sites in Algeria and its neighbors but has not tried to hit the U.S. homeland. AQAP, too, had been focused primarily on Yemen and its neighbor Saudi Arabia, and for many years limited the scope of its operations. This changed in 2009, however, and Awlaki deserves much of the blame. With his death, we can hope that AQAP might again devote itself exclusively to attacks in Yemen and the region -- though perhaps we cannot count on it.
Just as importantly, Awlaki tried to inspire Muslims in the United States and the West in general to take up arms. As an American, he knew U.S. culture and values and how to play on these far more effectively than other al Qaeda figures. The plodding rhetoric of bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri comes off flat in translation, but Awlaki's excellent English was far more compelling. He could speak to figures like Hasan in a way other al Qaeda leaders could not.
Another death in the same strike that killed Awlaki, less heralded but also important, comes into play here. Samir Khan produced the Inspire web magazine, AQAP's slick web journal that explained the jihadi cause to English speakers around the world. Inspire weighed in on how Muslims should think about the Arab Spring, but also -- in imitation of catchy U.S. supermarket reads -- explained how to make a bomb with materials you could find in your mom's basement and lampooned the travails of Anthony Weiner. Awlaki's sermons and Inspire magazine helped AQAP reach into America and convince Americans to travel to Yemen, where they became open for recruitment into terrorism.
Even including horrors such as the Fort Hood shootings, the U.S. homeland has suffered little terrorist violence since 9/11, especially given the dire predictions government officials and analysts made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. One factor contributing to this success is that American Muslims showed little inclination to radicalism, and sending recruiters into the United States is a surprisingly difficult task for al Qaeda-linked terrorists coming from overseas. Although America's open society seemingly is an invitation to attacks, al Qaeda did not have many operatives who could easily travel to the United States, work in a clandestine way, and reach out to Americans to convince them to join the cause.
People like Awlaki threatened this happy picture. Because he spoke to U.S. audiences, he could recruit American citizens to his cause. Citizens such as Awlaki not only enjoy more rights and less scrutiny than visitors (especially those from the Middle East), but also are at home here and know how to blend in. So they often only show up on the radar screens of security officials after an attack, when it is too late.
No terrorist leader is irreplaceable, and AQAP and other groups have a deep bench. But a deep bench is not an infinite one, and the jihadist cause will have a tough time replacing someone like Awlaki.