Victory for the United States but Not the Defeat of Al Qaeda in Yemen

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–September 30, 2011.  The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born terrorist working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is a victory in the fight against international terrorist groups targeting the United States, but the significance of his death for AQAP or on Yemen-based terrorism should not be overstated. Today the Center for American Progress released “A Victory for the United States but Not the Defeat of Al Qaeda in Yemen,” which points out that while Awlaki’s death is a clear win for the U.S.-led air campaign against AQAP, it is woefully inadequate to address the medium- and long-term challenges of AQAP in the region or the multiple ongoing crises facing the Yemeni people.

While it is true that Awlaki was among the most influential international terrorists adept at spreading the movement using English, he was not even the most powerful figure in his own terrorist group let alone a potential successor to the leadership role of Osama bin Laden. And his death will have virtually no impact on the AQAP’s strength in Yemen. Awlaki was able to reach an audience and inspire would-be terrorists in the West because he often delivered video sermons or writings in English. But he was no bin Laden. In fact, U.S. officials unintentionally served as Awlaki’s biggest propaganda office by constantly inflating his importance within AQAP and international terrorism.

Further, the use of airstrikes against terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere are a useful counterterrorism tool but they are not sufficient to defeat terrorism on their own and fall far short of the necessary action in Yemen. The United States has reportedly increased its use of airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen since the political crisis gripping that fractured country has diverted the attention of Yemen’s security forces to regime survival. But at best this is a temporary solution. At worst it could exacerbate the problem of AQAP in Yemen if U.S. officials are further seduced by the transitory success of airstrikes.

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki does remove a terrorist intent on directing attacks on the United States who could inspire a new audience in the West to take up his call because he could speak and write in English. But while he may be among the most identifiable international terrorists, he was not even the most powerful figure in his own terrorist group. Meanwhile, AQAP will certainly remain a major threat to Yemen, its neighbors in the region, and the United States. U.S. airstrikes in Yemen weaken AQAP, but only a broader approach to Yemen that addresses the problems that more directly affect the everyday lives of Yemenis will help that country achieve a more stable and sustainable future.

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