How does the Anwar al-Aulaqi killing affect the war on terror?

Sep 30, 2011

The United States government has reported the death of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric and one of the most influential al-Qaeda operatives wanted by the United States, via an airstrike in northern Yemen. Chat with Joshua Foust about al-Aulaqi's life and what this could mean for the war on terror, including how al-Aulai's death could affect recruiting for extremists and more.

Related: Anwar al-Aulaqi, U.S.-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda, reported killed in Yemen

Am I the only one who is offended by the killing of a U.S. Citizen by the U.S. government without a trial? This guy had rights under the 5th Amendment no matter how bad he was. How is Obama any better than any dictator who kills their own citizens without a trial?

I think, in its most basic outline, the Awlaki death does seem like a violation of American values. However, legal scholars actually disagree about whether or not it is. Earlier today Spencer Ackerman wrote a piece summarizing the case for and against the legality of Awlaki's killing. I have to be honest: I was disgusted by it beforehand, but now I'm not nearly as certain. But you can judge for yourself.

What kind of message do you think this will send to AQ or any terrorist group?

I think President Obama hopes this will send the same message to AQ  that killing bin Laden and the massive drones campaign does: that the United States Government can get to you wherever you are.

Now, whether relying on air strikes like this is an effective means of deterring terrorism is another matter entirely. It is certainly the most effective method of killing terrorists and suspected terorrists, but that doesn't mean it is the smartest.

Mr. Foust In the last year, much of Al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan, and now Yemen, has been wiped out by drones in nations where the US is not technically supposed to have a military presence. Will drone strikes become a permanent fixture in US foreign policy? Is it possible that America is entering a stage of permanent war?

Drones already are a permanent fixture of American warfare, and they have been since the 1990s. We have been using drones to kill suspected al Qaeda figures since 2002, and that first strike in 2002 took place in Yemen. So the Awlaki death isn't exactly breaking new ground in that sense.

Whether this means American is in for an era of permanent warfare is a bigger question. There are certainly people in DC who think we should be in a more or less permanent state of war against al Qaeda. I tend to side more with my good friend and terrorism scholar Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who argued in his latest book that it is actually our overreaction to al Qaeda that is the problem, and not al Qaeda itself. I find that argument much more compelling, and in line with my understanding of the last decade, than any push to remain permanently at war.

But, that doesn't mean people in the government, and in the think tanks and other activists who advocate for the government, won't keep pushing permanent warfare.

Hi Joshua, The US builds up these "terrorist leaders" way beyond their true value just to keep the war on terror simple. We kill them and nothing changes except we have to find a new villain to over rate. Why not just leave them since we have invested so much marketing in exaggerating their importance?

I think your last question kind of answered this. If we elevate a figure into an assumed leadership role -- and despite Awlaki's involvement in anti-American terrorism he held no leadership positions within AQAP -- in a way we then obligate ourselves to neutralize him.

While Awlaki's importance to global jihad is almost certainly over-hyped, he did play a role in it. He most likely was behind the "underwear bomber," for example, and has been focusing a lot of attention on urging would-be terrorists to attack Americans.

But, the man was no Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was legitimately a world's most wanted terrorist. Awlaki is a terrorist, but I do think exaggerrating his importance the way the U.S. government did was a mistake.

How does the killing of Aulaqi affect the US' stance on encouraging a transition in Yemen and calling on Saleh to step down?

I think the timing of this strike is interesting. There is no evidence to support it, but this happened almost exactly one week after President Saleh returned to Yemen. One of Saleh's main contentions has been that without him, Yemen will descend into chaos. This strike helps to confirm that.

That doesn't mean that's a correct reading of the situation. And Saleh's return to Yemen does not really bode well for a clean transition there. There's no reason to assume that Awlaki changes the many challenges Yemen will face in transitioning to a non-Saleh government.

After Americans "withdraw" from Afghanistan, will it look more like the model being used in Yemen and the horn of Africa (light presence, mostly intel, special ops and drones)? Can it work there, assuming it is working in Yemen?

I don't know that it's working, despite Awlaki's killing today. It doesn't change AQAP's reach, capabilities, ambition, or stature within Yemen. So that's up in the air.

If Afghanistan transitions to something similar - and that's a big if - I don't see how it would be any more successful. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We tend to mistake counterterrorism operations as something we do, finish, and then declare victory. I prefer to think of them as persistent risks to be managed. In that light, you don't necessary need a permanent presence of special operations forces to oppose terrorism, but you do need to maintain the ability to strike terrorists when you can.

What effect do you think this will have on the Arab Spring?

None. The Arab Spring was churning along in Yemen without Awlaki's help, and it will continue to without him.

Was al-Aulaqi under the protection of any local tribes and how will this assassination effect Yemen's domestic political turmoil and opinion there towards the USA?

I don't think "protection" is the right way to think of this. Awlaki was a part of Yemen -- he had family, friends, a social network, and communal expectations to manage just like any other part of Yemeni society. And most Yemenis don't know who he is. He certainly enjoyed moving freely in areas his family was from, but that's not quite the same thing as being actively protected.

His family, on the other hand, did try to shield him. Awlaki's father, in particular, was publicly adamant that the charges against his son were invented.

Could you talk a little about the cultural differences between Yemen and Afghanistan? Islam is the dominant religion in both countries, and tribes exist in both countries. But in what ways are they different? What are some general points you think are helpful for the average American to understand about Yemen and Afghanistan?

Yemen and Afghanistan are very different. If only for the geography, Yemen has a coastline and at least one really good harbor and Afghanistan does not. Yemen was a British colony for a long time; Afghanistan was not. Politically Yemen is far more stable than Afghanistan in the 20th century, but it has also suffered more division and warfare (though the Yemeni civil wars were not as harrowing as the Afghans' experience with the Soviets or each other).

We can list differences endlessly. Yemenis don't speak Pashto or Persian, Afghans do (and that has big implications for their religious and cultural cues). The tribes behave in so fundamentally different ways it is actually misleading to say they are similar because of tribes. And so on.

Really, what I think helps American best understand the two countries are their recent histories and their poverty. Both countries rank among the poorest on earth, and this has an effect on the choices their citizens have available to them. Yemen has struggled with division far more than Afghanistan, in the sense that the North-South dispute has been going on decades longer. Unlike in Afghanistan, there is an active secessionist movement in Yemen, and the fear of permanently losing territory weighs heavily in President Saleh's head.

But more than anything else, just keep in mind that they are very different places and that we shouldn't leap to too many conclusions.

How will President Saleh with his domestic unrest attempt to use the killing of Awlaki in order to benefit himself?

In all likelihood, he will try to play this as yet more proof that he is an indispensible part of the battle against extremism. Morever, he will probably try to say that he is the only man who can successfully govern Yemen because he has helped to kill a notorious terrorist who was destabilizing the country.

Or he might not. But I think he will say something along these lines.

How does this affect Al Qaeda in Yemen? Does this mean anything specific for Yemen's revolution and internal stability?

Very little, and not really. In the grand scheme of Yemen Things, this is a blip, not a sea change.

I think it's important to ask the Government to clarify their justification behind killing Awlaki. How and when do you think the Government should outline their justification for kinetic action on a US citizen?

I think they should do so immediately. Today, if not Monday morning. This does need to be resolved, because the ambiguity about the legality and morality of this strike will harm the government's legitimacy of action if it isn't.

Why has Obama killed so many more high-ranking Al Qaeda in three years than Bush did in seven years? Better strategy? No diversion to Iraq? His focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Some factors we don't know about?

It's probably a mixture of all of that. In a lot of ways, Obama isn't doing anything fundamentally different than Bush -- even the withdrawal from Iraq got its first start on Bush's watch and just continued under Obama. He's more or less continuing his predecessor's policy, and also has adopted a far less confrontational tone in his public statements. Maybe that matters too, who knows?

You state that Awlaki had no leadership role in AQAP. But the president has just said he was the head of external ops. If that's true, does it change you reasoning about whether he should have been killed?

No. I used to work on Yemen issues for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Awlaki corresponded with some people, and he urged others (like Major Hassan, who shot up Ft. Hood) to commit violence. I don't see much public evidence to support giving Awlaki so much credit for violence that happens. His primary role was ideological, was outreach, and was in creating the moral justification to violence. That is still hugely important, but maybe working on a single attack doesn't quite constitute a "promotion."

Who's this other guy, Samir Khan, that was with Anwar al-Aulaqi when he was killed? How important a fish is he?

He's pretty important, too, especially as one of the main voices behind the Inspire magazine. Awlaki was very public, but Khan did a lot of grunt work to get AQAP's message out there.

What's does Awlaki's death mean for AQAP's fortunes?

I don't think it means much. It will affect their English-language recruitment drive, but it won't really change their Arabic-language recruitment. Awlaki was really middle management in AQAP -- Nasser al-Wuhayshi, AQAP's actual leader, is far more important.

Catherine Herridge's book 'The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda's American Recruits' portrays al-Aulaqi as the key recruiter of Americans for AQ. He has also been identified as bin Laden's successor. So, how does his death affect AQ -- in recruiting Americans as well as leading AQ going forward? Is there now a vacuum?

I never saw a reason to justify calling Awlaki  bin Laden's successor. And events after bin Laden's death, in which Awlaki's position didn't change at all, supports that.

Chuck Todd (WH correspondent) just tweeted this "WH @PressSec will not address the citizenship issue re:al-Awlaki because it presumes US role in actual operation to kill him." Does this mean we didn't do it or is Carney just stalling?

I wish I knew, but the White House's refusal to engage on this is not helping the situation. If they were willing to kill this guy they need to be willing to come out and say why and how.

Why is this not just a reflection of the strategy that we will go to the ends of the earth to get retribution for the heinous actions against us?

It probably is.

with recent speculation about the AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah allegiances, does Awlaki's death lead to an alligning of the groups of possibly more divergence?

I don't see why or how. Unfortunately that speculation is just that - speculation. I'd prefer to make judgements about this stuff using data.

I forgot to write an intro post here. So I hope that didn't confuse anyone, but I think the steady flow of questions shows it didn't. My bad!

Good morning, I think we can all agree the world is a better places without Anwar al-Aulaqi but I'm concerned about the precedent of our military attacking US citizens. Was this situation okay because he was labeled as a terrorist? Did he renounce his citizenship or rights because he was targeting the US? Was it legal because it took place on foreign soil? While our legal system is not perfect, I'd like to think all US citizens deserve their day in court, no matter how terrible their crimes are.

That legality is hotly contested right now. I lean toward opposing this strike, but there are a lot of solid arguments that Awlaki's citizenship doesn't exempt him from retaliatory strikes for participating in a enemy terrorist organization overseas. This is why the Obama Admin needs to come out sooner rather than later about why they did this, and present the public with their reasoning, logic, and supporting evidence.

I'm out of time, but I want to thank everyone for the very excellent questions. I'm sorry I couldn't get to them all, but I do appreciate them! Best of the weekend to you all.



Joshua Foust

In This Chat
Joshua Foust
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a former defense intelligence analyst who worked on Yemen. Joshua is currently leading an international team of researchers investigating political organization using social media in the Former Soviet Union. His research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy, and on non-military implementations of foreign policy doctrine. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, the intelligence community’s place in the national security discussion, and the changing role of privacy and secrecy post-Wikileaks.
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