The elimination in a CIA drone strike of Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda’s major English-language sock puppet and propagandist, has many problematic aspects. However, from an Arab- and Muslim-American perspective it can only be a very good thing.
Awlaki was not a “key leader” in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His death will do virtually nothing to change the political situation in Yemen. Most Yemenis are unaware of his existence and do not care about his death. AQAP is only one of a myriad of Islamist and Salafist-Jihadist groups in Yemen, and is not a major factor in the power struggle between members of the Yemeni elite. This struggle will likely determine the outcome of the battle over that country’s future.
That said, Awlaki’s death was highly significant on two counts. First, he was a key figure in al Qaeda’s current strategy (as clearly articulated by its paramount leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri) of seeking to organize terrorist attacks in the West. Zawahiri’s recent statements have emphasized the need for extremely small groups and preferably lone individuals who have self-radicalized on the basis of the kind of propaganda relentlessly issued by Awlaki through the Internet.
Zawahiri has insisted that Western al Qaeda sympathizers should operate in the greatest secrecy, preferably alone, because communications invariably lead to discovery and the collapse of terrorist plots. Most would-be “jihadists” in the West are failing to heed such advice. They are also, typically, focusing on military targets that are difficult to attack, rather than “soft targets” such as civilian areas. This tactic is largely proving to be a failure because few Western Muslims are interested in violence. And in the rare cases that they are, they have generally disregarded Zawahiri’s admonitions and have been apprehended before launching successful attacks.
However, in at least one dreadful instance, Awlaki’s propaganda helped inspire and direct a major and successful act of terrorism on American soil: the Fort Hood massacre conducted by Major Nidal Hasan. Awlaki was apparently in e-mail contact with Hasan before he embarked on his murderous rampage, and Awlaki’s insidious propaganda plainly helped inspire that outrage. Awlaki has also been linked to a plot to ship explosives in printer cartridges on commercial airliners bound for the United States, as well as to the Nigerian “underwear bomber” who failed to bring down a commercial airliner over Detroit. Neither of those plots succeeded, but both almost did.
Second, Awlaki was an American born in New Mexico and a former senior cleric at a large and important mosque just outside Washington, DC. This has been exhibit A in the claims of professional Islamophobes and anti-Arab racists that the American-Muslim community poses a significant threat to the rest of American society. Awlaki’s activities, even if they are seen mainly as “speech acts,” posed a direct and very serious threat to the wellbeing of Arab- and Muslim- Americans generally because of his identity and virulent extremism.
American officials have said that the simultaneous death of another American al Qaeda extremist, Samir Khan, who was editor of the group’s English-language propaganda publication Inspire, was a bonus and that Awlaki was the main target. However, Khan’s loss may be an even bigger blow from a practical point of view to al Qaeda, which has lost someone key in radicalizing Western Muslims.
But Khan was little-known in the United States, while Awlaki was a malignant cancer on the reputation of Arab- and Muslim-Americans. He was also frequently cited by those who would stigmatize these communities as a potentially dangerous fifth column requiring discriminatory special treatment from the government.
The bottom line is that Awlaki preached that all Americans, of whatever origin, were fair game and should be killed at every possible opportunity. That, of course, includes Arab- and Muslim-Americans. So Awlaki not only threatened the reputation of these communities, but also potentially their members as well. This man wanted us all dead, so eliminating him was, quintessentially, an act of self-defense.
There are real and important constitutional issues and due process concerns about this assassination, and they will have to be debated in the coming months. However, due process arguments need to take into consideration the practical implausibility of the capture and trial of these individuals, what such an effort would have entailed, and the real options the US government faced in dealing with them.
These concerns notwithstanding, Arab- and Muslim-Americans should welcome the elimination of a man who posed a real and serious threat to their standing and, indeed, their very lives.