On May 5, a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) struck a vehicle in the town of Nissab in Yemen’s restive Shabwa province. The airstrike reportedly resulted in the deaths of two Yemeni members of the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and injured a third AQAP militant. Subsequent media reports indicated that the strike had targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born member of AQAP, but had failed to kill him.
The May 5 strike was not the first time al-Awlaki had been targeted and missed. On Dec. 24, 2009 (a day before the failed AQAP Christmas Day bombing attempt against Northwest Airlines Flight 253), an airstrike and ground assault was launched against a compound in the al-Said district of Shawba province that intelligence said was the site of a major meeting of AQAP members. The Yemeni government initially indicated that the attack had killed al-Awlaki along with several senior AQAP members, but those reports proved incorrect.
In 2009 and 2010, the United States conducted other strikes against AQAP in Yemen, though most of those strikes reportedly involved Tomahawk cruise missiles and carrier-based fixed-wing aircraft. Still, the United States has reportedly used UAVs to attack targets in Yemen on a number of occasions. In November 2002, the CIA launched a UAV strike against Abu Ali al-Harithi and five confederates in Marib. That strike essentially decapitated the al Qaeda node in Yemen and greatly reduced its operational effectiveness for several years. There are also reports that a May 24, 2010, strike may have been conducted by a UAV. However, that strike mistakenly killed the wrong target, which generated a great deal of anger among Yemen’s tribes, who then conducted armed attacks against pipelines and military bases. The use of airstrikes against AQAP was heavily curtailed after that attack.
All this is to say that a UAV strike in Yemen is not particularly surprising — nor is a strike targeting AQAP or al-Awlaki. Indeed, we noted in January our belief that AQAP had eclipsed the al Qaeda core on the physical battlefield due to the efforts of its tactical commanders and on the ideological battlefield due to the efforts of its propaganda wing, Al-Malahem Media.
One thing that has struck us as odd about the May 5 airstrike, however, is the way al-Awlaki has been characterized in the press. Several media outlets have referred to him as the leader of AQAP, which he clearly is not (he is not even the group’s primary religious leader). Other reports have even speculated that al-Awlaki could be in line to become the global leader of the jihadist movement following the death of Osama bin Laden. In light of such statements, it seems a fitting time to discuss once again the leadership of AQAP and to examine al-Awlaki’s role within the organization.
Stepping Into the Void
Yemen became a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts following the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen; the 9/11 attacks; and the October 2002 bombing attack against the oil tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast. As noted above, following the November 2002 UAV strike that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, the jihadists in Yemen entered a period of disorganization and operational dormancy. This period was also marked by the arrests and imprisonment of several important Yemeni jihadists. There remained many jihadists in Yemen, and many more sympathizers, but the movement in Yemen lacked effective leadership and direction.
This leadership void was filled by a man named Nasir al-Wahayshi, who is also known by the honorific name, or kunya, Abu Basir. Al-Wahayshi is an ethnic Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan while allegedly working closely with Osama bin Laden. Some reports even indicate al-Wahayshi was bin Laden’s personal secretary. Al-Wahayshi fled Afghanistan following the battle at Tora Bora and went to Iran, where he was arrested by the government of Iran in late 2001 or early 2002. Al-Wahayshi was repatriated to Yemen in 2003 through an extradition deal with the Iranian government and subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside Sanaa in February 2006, along with 22 other jihadists. Other escapees in the group included Jamal al-Badawi, who is wanted by U.S. officials for his alleged role as the leader of the cell that carried out the suicide bombing of the USS Cole, and Qasim al-Raymi, who became AQAP’s military leader. Al-Raymi is said to be an aggressive, ruthless and fierce fighter (some have likened him to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Al-Raymi has also been unsuccessfully targeted by an airstrike.
Following the 2006 prison break, there was a notable change in jihadist activity in Yemen. In September 2006 there was an attack involving dual vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) against oil facilities. This was the first use of VBIEDs on land in Yemen (large IEDs in boats had been used in the USS Cole and Limburg attacks).
Al-Wahayshi was able to establish control of Yemen’s ramshackle network of jihadists by mid 2007, bringing a resurgence to jihadist operations in Yemen. By January 2009, the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda franchise had fled Saudi Arabia for Yemen and declared their loyalty to al-Wahayshi. It is notable that the Saudi contingent swore allegiance to al-Wahayshi because it indicated that the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni jihadist entities was not a merger of equals. A hierarchy had been established for AQAP with al-Wahayshi at the top, a testament to his leadership.
At the time of the merger, Saudi national (and former Guantanamo detainee) Said Ali al-Shihri was named as al-Wahayshi’s deputy. Another notable Saudi who joined the group during the union was Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, who has become AQAP’s chief bombmaker and the mastermind behind the innovative IEDs used in AQAP’s attacks. Also joining AQAP at this time was a Saudi cleric named Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, who reportedly earned a degree in Islamic law from Muhammad Ibn-Saud University and would become the group’s mufti, or religious leader. Al-Rubaish fought with bin Laden and al-Wahayshi at Tora Bora, and shortly after the battle he was arrested and detained at Guantanamo Bay until 2006, when he was returned to Saudi Arabia. After completing the Saudi rehabilitation program, al-Rubaish fled to Yemen, where he joined AQAP. The relationship between AQAP figures such as al-Wahayshi and al-Rubaish and bin Laden helps explain why AQAP has been the franchise jihadist group that is the closest ideologically to the al Qaeda core.
Al-Awlaki’s Path to AQAP
This review of AQAP’s formation demonstrates that Nasir al-Wahayshi is clearly the leader of AQAP. However, that does not mean that al-Awlaki plays an insignificant role in the group. He has come to be an important ideologue and spokesman — especially to English-speaking Muslims. Even in the years before he was well-known, al-Awlaki was long suspected of being an al Qaeda supporter. The 9/11 Commission Report even noted that he had had close contact with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who attended his mosque in San Diego. After al-Awlaki moved to a mosque in northern Virginia, Alhamzi reportedly visited him with another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour.
In 2002, under increasing law enforcement scrutiny during the 9/11 investigation, al-Awlaki left the United States. After living and preaching for just over a year in London, he returned to Yemen in early 2004. It is important to remember that in early 2004, the jihadists in Yemen were off balance and directionless. While al-Awlaki was able to establish himself as a leading online English-language jihadist preacher, he was always somewhat circumspect in his choice of language in public and did not directly espouse attacks against the United States and the West, probably because he was undergoing a slow transformation from being an American Salafi to becoming a transnational jihadist, and it takes time for ideas to crystallize. Although al-Awlaki’s prominence as an English-language preacher increased dramatically during this time, it is noteworthy that al-Awlaki was not able to provide the leadership required to organize the jihadist movement in Yemen, which would continue to struggle until al-Wahayshi escaped from prison and assumed control. Al-Awlaki is an ideologue, not an organizer.
Al-Awlaki was arrested by Yemeni authorities in August 2006 and held in custody until December 2007. Between the time of his arrest and the time of his release, there had been a tectonic shift in the Yemeni jihadist landscape under the leadership of al-Wahayshi, which had once again become active and deadly, as evidenced by the July 2007 suicide attack that killed eight Spanish tourists and their two Yemeni guides. Following his release from prison, al-Awlaki’s public rhetoric indicated an increased degree of radicalism. However, despite the increasing radicalism in his sermons and statements, al-Awlaki remained somewhat ambivalent regarding his association with AQAP. Even following the above-mentioned Dec. 24, 2009, airstrike in which he was supposedly targeted, he denied being associated with AQAP in an interview with a Yemeni reporter. This position was becoming increasingly untenable as reports of his links to Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan and Christmas Day bombing-attempt suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were revealed.
By early 2010, al-Awlaki finally began to publicly acknowledge his affiliation with AQAP, a relationship that he openly admitted in the first edition of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine. Al-Awlaki has been a regular contributor to Inspire, and a review of his contributions clearly displays his role in the organization as a religious leader and propagandist. In the first edition of Inspire, al-Awlaki wrote the theme article for the edition, “May Our Souls Be Sacrificed for You,” which provided a religious justification for attacks against the individuals involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy. A list of individuals to be targeted was also included.
The second edition of Inspire contained a lengthy article by al-Awlaki that was intended to refute a declaration made by a group of mainstream Islamic scholars called the New Mardin Declaration, which undercut several key tenets of jihadism such as the practice of takfir, or declaring another Muslim to be an unbeliever. The scholars also condemned the practice of terrorism and attacks directed against Muslim rulers. The fourth edition of Inspire contained a fatwa by al-Awlaki entitled “The Ruling on Disposing the Unbelievers Wealth in Dar el Harb,” which provides religious justification for stealing from unbelievers in the West. Then in the fifth edition of Inspire, al-Awlaki wrote an article titled “The Tsunami of Change,” which was intended to refute claims that the ideology of jihadism had become irrelevant in the wake of the uprisings occurring across the Arab world over the previous few months.
Al-Awlaki’s in-depth refutation of the New Mardin Declaration clearly displayed how seriously jihadists take any attack against their ideology, a trend we have noted in the past by discussing the efforts of core al Qaeda ideological figures like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi to vigorously defend the key doctrines of jihadism against assault from mainstream Islamic scholars. In the words of al-Libi, the jihadist battle “is not waged solely at the military and economic level, but is waged first and foremost at the level of doctrine.”
To a movement that is based upon ideology, especially an ideology that embraces “martyrdom,” the largest threat is not physical force — which can kill individuals — but rather ideological attacks like the New Mardin Declaration that can tear down the ideological base the movement is founded upon. This is something jihadists fear more than death.
Therefore it is important for the movement to have ideological leaders who not only expound and propagate the ideology, using it to recruit new members, but can also act as ideological watchdogs or apologists to defend the theology from ideological attack. This is one of the roles that al-Awlaki is currently playing for AQAP, that of an ideological guardian. He preaches the doctrine of jihadism in an effort to attract new recruits, provides religious rulings as to whether it is religiously permissible to attack particular targets and conduct specific types of operations and vigorously defends the doctrine of jihadism from attack.
However, it is important to understand that al-Awlaki is an ideological leader in AQAP and not the ideological leader of the organization. As noted above, the actual ideological leader (mufti) of AQAP is a Saudi named Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, who, unlike al-Awlaki, fought with bin Laden at Tora Bora, was captured and is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. In addition to this cachet of having fought side by side with bin Laden and maintained his faith through Guantanamo, al-Rubaish has also been formally educated in Shariah (al-Awlaki has degrees in civil engineering and education and worked toward a degree in human resources development, but he has no formal theological training). Al-Awlaki and al-Rubaish are also joined by another AQAP ideological leader, Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, a Yemeni imam who, according to some reports, chairs AQAP’s Shariah Council.
So, while Al-Awlaki is an American citizen, speaks native English and is an accomplished communicator (especially in appealing to English-speaking Muslims), he is not the emir of AQAP or even its primary religious authority. Therefore it is unthinkable that he could possibly replace Osama bin Laden as the leader of the worldwide jihadist movement instead of a far more significant jihadist figure such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The second and clearly most significant role that al-Awlaki plays for AQAP is that of the group’s foremost preacher to English-speaking Muslims. Starting in 2008, al-Wahayshi and the AQAP leadership made a strategic decision to encourage radicalized Muslims living in the West to adopt a leaderless-resistance form of jihadist militancy. This operational model meant instructing radicalized Muslims to conduct simple attacks using readily available means where they live, instead of traveling to places like Yemen or Pakistan to obtain training. This appeal was evidenced not only in the group’s online Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahem but also in the founding of the group’s English-language online magazine Inspire.
Because of counterterrorism measures undertaken in the West, it has become more difficult for terrorist operatives from the al Qaeda core and franchise groups like AQAP to travel to the United States or Europe to conduct terrorist attacks. This is the reason that AQAP (and later the al Qaeda core) chose to focus on recruiting and equipping grassroots operatives. These efforts have paid dividends in attacks like the Fort Hood shooting, which killed more Americans than any attack conducted by the AQAP itself. So, while al-Awlaki’s role in reaching out to the English-speaking Muslim world may not seem all that significant as far as AQAP’s internal operations are concerned, it allows the group to project power into the heart of the West, and it is a critical component of the group’s effort to take the fight to their enemy’s homeland. Al-Awlaki is important, just not in the way many in the press are portraying him to be.