The rather inconsequential killing of Anwar al-Awlaki | Jeb Boone

The cleric who was killed was involved with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula but he was not the group's leader

Wesley Clark: This shows the US is winning against al-Qaida

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and a known member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been killed in Yemen. But his death is virtually insignificant.

The American obsession with AQAP's resident English speaker began in 2009 when Major Nidal Malik Hasan of the US army killed 13 people and wounded 29 in a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. Investigations of the shooting revealed that Hassan had corresponded with Awlaki through email.

Time and again, since the Fort Hood shootings, American broadcast media have wrongly identified Awlaki as the leader of AQAP or at least one of its most senior figures. He was not.

AQAP's leader is Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former personal aide to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the man who presided over the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaida to found the group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula.

So far, it is unclear whether the blow that killed Awlaki was dealt by the Yemeni or American militaries but undoubtedly the attack involved intelligence and logistical co-operation between the two countries. An American drone strike appears to be the most likely means by which Awlaki was killed.

The location of Awlaki's killing adds further weight to the view that he played absolutely no operational role in AQAP. According to a report in the New York Times, he was attacked while travelling from Marib province to al-Jawf – more than 100km from where suspected AQAP militants have been engaging the Yemeni military in the southern province of Abyan. In such a crucial fight for supposed AQAP militants, a top commander moving so far away from the battle lines would seem preposterous.

Perhaps Awlaki was instead seeking out a more reliable internet connection to publish another issue of Inspire, AQAP's English language magazine. Inspire once suggested that would-be martyrs should attach spikes to trucks and run people over in crowded shopping malls – an idea apparently borrowed from comedic post-apocalyptic films. Even Bin Laden thought was a bit too Thunderdome.

However, for Yemen's pro-democracy activists whose protest camps have been facing artillery bombardment for the past two weeks, Awlaki's death means little, if anything. The one thing that might pique the protesters' interest is the timing of Awlaki's death. Just seven days ago, President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia where he was being treated for injuries sustained in a bomb attack last June.

Saleh's time-honoured strategy has been to try to convince the west, and the US in particular, that without him extremism would flourish in Yemen.

Thus, the single important consequence of Awlaki's death relates to the future of Saleh and his efforts to prolong his now-tenuous 33-year hold on power. Having duped the west three times into believing he was about to step down, he has now handed America's most sought-after head (in the shape of Awlaki) to Washington. With a counter-terrorism trophy like that on display for American audiences, US diplomats may find it difficult to maintain the pressure on Saleh to resign.

Meanwhile, with or without Awlaki, rival military factions still patrol the streets of Yemen's capital. Separatists will continue to call for a return of autonomy to the former People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen and tribes will continue to resist government control. American drones will continue to roam the Yemeni skies and pro-democracy protesters will continue to be gunned downed as they sling rocks at loyalist plainclothes gunmen armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.

Average Yemenis will still continue to labour, day in and day out, in a seemingly endless struggle to feed their families in the midst of sustained violence and intermittent shelling of the cities and villages in which they live.


Jeb Boone

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
About Anwar al-Awlaki, Mr President … | Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy: In his CBS interview with Obama, Steve Kroft failed to ask about the US's next assassination target – a stunning omission

Dan Kennedy

09, May, 2011 @5:54 PM

Article image
Anwar al-Awlaki obituary
Yemeni-American al-Qaida propagandist and terrorist leader

Jason Burke

02, Oct, 2011 @4:15 PM

Article image
US drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki reinforces terrorists | Maajid Nawaz
In the extra-judicial killing of a US citizen accused of inspiring terror attacks, America has abandoned its own values, writes Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz

01, Oct, 2011 @10:19 PM

Article image
Anwar al-Awlaki and the US's long war on al-Qaida | John Bolton

John Bolton: What George Bush started, Barack Obama has completed: he should take credit. But the struggle against jihadism is not over

John Bolton

02, Oct, 2011 @4:53 PM

Article image
Taking down Anwar al-Awlaki shows the US is winning against al-Qaida | Wesley Clark

Wesley Clark: Our active defence against terror is now highly effective. But the US must move past Awlaki's death to champion American values

Wesley Clark

30, Sep, 2011 @6:22 PM

Article image
The Anwar al-Awlaki who impressed me as a teenager | Nussaibah Younis

Nussaibah Younis: From impassioned preacher to 'terrorist No 1' – via a loss of faith in American freedom

Nussaibah Younis

01, Nov, 2010 @12:00 PM

Article image
Bomb maker believed to be third victim of al-Awlaki drone strike in Yemen
As details emerge of drone strike that killed al-Qaida preacher and others, controversy grows over American operation

Paul Harris and Jamie Doward

01, Oct, 2011 @3:39 PM

Article image
Why I spoke out on Anwar al-Awlaki | Karima Bennoune

Karima Bennoune: I support human rights for all – and that is why I dissent from the uncritical legal defence of a jihadist who advocates murder

Karima Bennoune

19, Nov, 2010 @5:00 PM

Article image
Profile: al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki

Islamist cleric who radicalised Roshonara Choudhry

Vikram Dodd

30, Sep, 2011 @10:00 AM

Article image
Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaida cleric and top US target, killed in Yemen

Obama welcomes news of Awlaki's death in US air strike, and says dual US-Yemeni citizen advanced 'murderous agenda'

Martin Chulov in Beirut and Paul Harris in New York

30, Sep, 2011 @5:37 PM