Killing Is the Easy Part

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 30 2011 7:54 PM

Killing Is the Easy Part

The drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki treated one of Yemen’s symptoms, but the disease is getting worse.

Anwar al-Awlaki
Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen.

Radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed Friday in a CIA drone strike in Yemen, was a dangerous man, and his death makes Americans safer. But it won’t make Yemen any less volatile—and, in the long term, that’s a problem the United States won’t be able to ignore. 

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Born in New Mexico, educated at Colorado State, and radicalized while preaching in American mosques, Awlaki is an archetype of the homegrown jihadist. And since moving to Yemen in 2004, he has become a beacon to others like him. He was in contact with Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. He may have recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, who tried to ignite a bomb in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009. And the man behind last May’s Times Square car bomb attempt cited him as an inspiration. Killed along with Awlaki on Friday was another protégé, 25-year-old American jihadist Samir Khan.


The circumstances of Awlaki’s death make it easy to see why American leaders ranging from Obama to Mitt Romney to the hawkish Rep. Peter King rejoiced Friday. Details of the attack are still fuzzy, but it appears that the Hellfire missiles that blew up Awlaki, Khan, and two others managed not to take out any innocent bystanders. That hasn’t always been the case in previous U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. But in this instance, as in the CIA operation that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in May, surgical execution produced an unalloyed success that will be hard for al-Qaida to spin to its advantage. (That the U.S. government deliberately killed Awlaki—its own citizen—raises troubling legal questions, but that’s a separate issue.)  

In the past, critics have said that Awlaki’s assassination would be “an act of futility” because he is not important to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (known as AQAP),  and many Yemenis don’t even know who Awlaki is. But regardless of where he stood on AQAP’s organizational chart (if such a thing exists) or how well-known he was inside Yemen, it’s clear Awlaki was one of the network’s top threats to the United States. He wasn’t an ideological leader or an operational mastermind. But along with Khan, who reportedly edited al-Qaida’s magazine, Inspire, he was among the group’s best communicators to young Muslims in the West.

A separate claim is that Awlaki’s death may actually make the United States less safe, because it will cause otherwise peaceful Yemenis to sign up with their local al-Qaida recruiter. Presumably, those would be different Yemenis from the ones who have never heard of Awlaki and don’t believe al-Qaida exists. Of all the grievances that might turn a Yemeni against the United States, Awlaki’s death in the country’s northern hinterlands is unlikely to be a deciding factor. 

Yemen has been in a state of crisis for decades. Its problems include overpopulation, poverty, tribalism, repression of women, and severe water shortages. And that was all before the Arab Spring spilled messily over into its borders. Amid the unrest in June, a bomb blast at a palace mosque prompted the country’s cagy longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to flee to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He returned just last week to a political crisis every bit as combustible as the one he left.

Yemenis are right to want Saleh gone. He has made it clear over the course of his 33-year rule that his self-preservation instincts are far stronger than his concern for the country’s future. But in a nation long on well-armed tribal groups and short on organized political parties, the alternatives are grim. Obama’s focus on counterterrorism has done little to improve the chances of a peaceful or democratic outcome. Drones can only do so much, and not every strike will turn out as well as this one. Until Yemen has a functional, legitimate central government, it will remain a haven for outlaws.

In killing Awlaki, Obama has treated a short-term symptom of Yemen’s long-term disease. On Friday he hailed the strike as a “major blow to al Qaida.” When the administration moves from congratulating itself to engaging more with Yemen’s real crises, it will have started the hard work of making America safer in the long run.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?