Between Memes and Blurred Vision
November 2, 2010 3 Comments
Note: The point of this article is to explain and show why Anwar al-Awlaki is not as important as individuals in the media and politicians make him out to be. Obviously, he is a threat and we should try and counteract his influence, but it should be based on a real understanding of him and his role in AQAP.
As one who follows Yemen on a daily basis it is disheartening when it becomes the focal point of the news following an attempted, failed, or successful terrorist attack. Out of the woodwork comes individuals who have no context, grasp, or understanding of Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), yet they act as if they know everything about Yemen. One of the most problematic trends since the Fort Hood shooting and the failed Christmas Day plot is the fundamental misunderstanding of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an eleven month period, al-Awlaki has gone from an obscure figure with a cultish following — from Muslims that have no formal education in Islam — in the English-speaking world to supposedly the next Osama bin Laden. It is completely delusional for one to even ponder that thought since it is so far from the truth. This trend has gone completely off the rails especially following the most recent failed cargo plot. In an article from the Guardian, it states:
US officials believe Asiri [the alleged bomb maker in the plot] is working closely with the radical US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has provided the “spiritual” support for attacks on the US as well as being a driving force behind them.
First off, who is this US official and where is there any proof of this? This idea has clearly been plucked out of thin air. Before explaining why this statement is completely wrong, it would be prudent to extrapolate on al-Awlaki’s position within AQAP. As Gregory D. Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, has been stating for almost a year now, al-Awlaki is middle management within the AQAP branch.
In addition, the recent news that Yemen is putting al-Awlaki on trial in absentia is a sleight of hand. It might appease those who do not know any better, but those who do realize this is a complete charade since al-Awlaki is not the man Yemen should be worried about. If Yemen actually focused their attention on the senior leadership in AQAP one would feel more comfort when Yemeni government officials state they are going after AQAP. The key leaders one should be far more focused on and worried about are Nasir al-Wihayshi, Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri, Adil al-Abab, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh as well as others. Furthermore, Ibrahim al-Asiri would not be taking spiritual guidance from an individual like al-Awlaki, but rather someone like al-Abab who is one of if not the key religious figure(s) within the AQAP branch.
Indeed, one should not discout the potential thorn in the side al-Awlaki can create since he speaks English and can attract westerners to the cause, but one has to remember al-Awlaki has scant influence in the Arab world or in the internal matters of AQAP. He is only worthwhile for potential recruitment and external operations at best. Most of the guys attracted to Al-Awlaki, though, are not field ready or battle tested individuals. Moreover, al-Awlaki lacks military experience or any type of field training. Brian Fishman, an expert on al-Qaeda, recently tweeted that individuals in the movement regard battlefield experience more important than theory, and as Fishman stated: “Awlaki is a keyboard jockey.” As a result, it has been foolish on the part of the media and pundits to make al-Awlaki more than he actually is. For the Christian Science Monitor to argue that al-Awlaki had a larger role in the 9/11 attacks is simply preposterous. Yes, he knew two of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks who had attended al-Awlaki’s mosque, but that does not mean al-Awlaki had intimate knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, in the 9/11 Commision it states there was not enough evidence to implicate al-Awlaki. It takes a big leap of logic to connect al-Awlaki as an important figure in the 9/11 attacks. These types of misrepresentations in some respects has manifested in a self-fulfilling prophecy that al-Awlaki will become more important to the AQAP branch. Not until individuals started over inflating his importance did al-Awlaki appear in any official AQAP media. Just because he speaks English and one can understand him does not make him the top guy in AQAP or on par with Bin Laden.
The jury is still out on whether al-Awlaki has risen within the AQAP branch in the past year due to individuals’ hysteria over his connections with some past plots. Based on the information we have, it is far-fetched to believe he is more than a mid-level individual within AQAP that could inspire English speakers to join their jihad. The key is, though, the real power and potential mayhem comes from the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian leadership in AQAP. al-Asiri takes cues from those guys not al-Awlaki whose influence is only in the English-speaking world.
It would be a tragedy, though, for individuals with influence to create policies based off of false premises, such as droning al-Awlaki as the silver bullet to solving the problem of AQAP. Another short-sided policy is removing al-Awlaki’s videos from YouTube. If politicians knew a thing they would realize that it will not change anything since al-Awlaki’s materials are also on forums, websites, blogs, facebook, and other places. Further, there are other radical preachers out there too.
As such, the idea that al-Awlaki has a large influence in AQAP or is the spiritual leader of AQAP or is the next Bin Laden has to end. Focus on Wihayshi, Raymi, and Shihri instead. This first step will then allow us to make better policy decisions and further allow us to better understand the AQAP branch and hopefully eradicate it from Yemen.