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.
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.