Prominent Al-Qaeda Official Awlaki Dead… So What?

On Friday, September 30th, a missile fired by an American drone in Yemen hit an Al-Qaeda convoy killing Anwar Al-Awlaki. Awlaki was a leading Al-Qaeda propagandist, and an alleged “operational mastermind”. Although the latter is debatable let’s, for argument’s sake, assume he was this brilliant operational leader. Is the world safer now than it was on Thursday, September 29th? Was Awlaki’s genius so rare and special, that it will be impossible for Al-Qaeda to ever find a replacement? While Awlaki’s death will surely weaken Al-Qaeda, is the effect of his death even slightly comparable to the effect of ten years of war in Afghanistan? In short, no, no and no, which leads to a less obvious question: Can Al-Qaeda even be defeated, and does it even matter if they can’t?

Al-Qaeda is based on the Islamic concept of Jihad, or rather a radically misconstrued form of Jihad (roughly translated, means “the struggle”). Its main goals include expelling “the west”, and it’s influence, from the Middle East. On an operational level, the group functions as a horizontal network of semi-autonomous cells. As such it lacks any real hierarchy, save for the relatively few who are at the pinnacle. Not only do these cells work almost independently of one another, but also the attacks they orchestrate are relatively simple and cheap. Furthermore, members of these Al-Qaeda cells gauge success very differently than do most people, even other terrorists. The simple act of being in struggle against the west is seen as success, which is why martyrdom is held in such high esteem. So even when they’re losing, they believe they’re winning. How do you defeat people who think like that?

You don’t. Now I know that definition of Al-Qaeda is pretty rough around the edges, but I think it incorporates several notable features. Features that make Al-Qaeda seemingly very hard to beat, if not impossible. I’m not saying you can’t fight or hurt them, or make them irrelevant. In fact I think the United States been successful in doing just that, as Al-Qaeda in today’s world is almost completely irrelevant. But I do think that’s the best the US can do in regards to Al-Qaeda, but they don’t seem to understand that. They’re still fighting, hoping that at some point in the future Al-Qaeda (or better yet, Extremist Islamic Jihad as a whole), will simply disappear, which just won’t happen.

Awlaki’s killing is a strong example of both the US’s mentality towards Al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda’s diminishing relevance in the world. The government heavily publicized Awlaki’s killing as a victory against Al-Qaeda. However in the words of Princeton Professor Gregory Johnson, a specialist on Yemen, Awlaki was “a dime a dozen cleric,” proving that his infamy was in essence due solely to American hype. Awlaki, in a way, represents Al-Qaeda’s growing irrelevance. They are less of a threat now than they ever were. So the fact that they can’t really be defeated doesn’t really matter, and it never did. What does matter however, is how the United States chooses deal with the smaller, but not insignificant, threat still posed by the terrorist group.

In my opinion, the threat posed by Al-Qaeda should be dealt with purely defensively. There are situations where the best defense is a good offense, but this isn’t one of them, especially considering how costly “offense” is becoming. Even the best case offensive scenario isn’t a guarantee of safety. Let’s imagine that the United States kills all Al-Qaeda members in the Middle East and destroys the group’s power base, however impossible that may be. Would it then be safe from Al-Qaeda? In a word: no. But prove to you exactly why not I’d like to remind you that the members directly responsible for the attacks on 9/11, were part of an Al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany. Germany is not Afghanistan, and it’s definitely not Yemen.


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