The top English-speaking member of al Qaeda — New Mexican-born Anwar al-Awlaki — was killed Friday, the Yemen government announced, a death quickly confirmed by U.S. officials. It’s yet another key indication that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent claim that the defeat of al Qaeda is “within reach” may be getting closer.
The circumstances of al-Awlaki’s death remain murky. The Yemeni foreign press office said he died about five miles from Khashef, a town in Jawf province. The Yemeni government initially said its forces killed him, but there was confusion to what degree — if any — U.S. or other countries were involved, as word seeped out that he may have been killed by a drone. In April, al-Awlaki made history after President Obama made him the first American ever to be put on the CIA’s hit list, and there have been several drone and jet strikes aimed at him since, U.S. officials say.
Assigning responsibility for al-Awlaki’s death is dicey: he was an American, advocating the death of fellow Americans via terrorism, which the U.S. sees as all the justification it needs to kill him. But Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s shaky grip on power — he has ruled Yemen for 30 years — will deter the U.S. from claiming it acted alone in violation of Yemen’s sovereignty. It’s a safe bet that al-Awlaki’s killing will end up being described as a joint operation in which both nations played vital roles: Yemeni intelligence leading to a U.S. drone strike.
al-Awlaki was a particularly powerful al Qaeda figure because he spoke excellent English. He made numerous recordings of his lectures (the English portion begins about 90 seconds in), some advocating jihad, that appealed to numerous English-speaking young male Muslims. They included Nidal Hassan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. His talks also allegedly incited Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight landing in Detroit on Christmas day, 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who allegedly tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May, 2010.
Assuming the reports are accurate — some al Qaeda leaders have been reported killed multiple times — it wraps up a hat trick of deaths among al Qaeda’s top tier, beginning with Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs on May 2 deep inside Pakistan. Last month, a drone strike, also inside Pakistan, reportedly killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who had been Al Qaeda’s top planner. That leaves only Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s longtime deputy and newly-crowned leader, as the last top al Qaeda leader standing.
The latest issue of Inspire, the online magazine published by al-Awlaki’s Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (whose editor, North Carolina-born Samir Khan, was killed along with al-Awlaki, according to the Yemeni government) , is kind of a special collector’s edition, highlighting “The Greatest Special Operation of All Time” — the attacks of 9/11.
As is typical, it is sprinkled with al-Awlaki’s words:
We will fight for him, we will instigate, we will bomb and we will assassinate, and may our mothers be bereaved of us if we do not rise in his defense
— SHAYKH ANWAR AL-AWLAKI — In describing the duty of killing those who insult our Prophet Muhammad
The West knows that it would be unwise to stand by their friends when the masses have spoken out
— SHAYKH ANWAR AL-AWLAKI — Describing the revolutions in face of America’s double standard
How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?
— SHAYKH ANWAR AL-AWLAKI — In defense of the operation of Nidal Hassan who killed U.S. Soldiers in Fort Hood
The magazine also notes in this September issue that al-Awlaki has been busy working on an article:
Targeting the Populations of Countries that are at War with the Muslims — Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki — coming soon
Or maybe not.