Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki

Article excerpt

Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen and Obama's War

By Patrick Seale

On Friday, Sept. 30, Yemen announced that a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA-operated drone had killed Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, in the north of the country. His grief-stricken father, once a minister of agriculture in a Yemeni government, went to the scene to collect and bury the pieces of what remained of Anwar's body. It was the seventh U.S. strike in Yemen this year.

Anwar al-Awlaki was a virulent critic of American foreign policy in the Arab world, and a passionate advocate of al-Qaeda's form of Islamic jihad. He was also a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico, with an engineering degree from Colorado State University. His Internet sermons, delivered in fluent English, had a devoted following, especially among young Muslims in the West.

His killing inevitably aroused a storm of controversy in the United States about its legality. In an article in The National Interest, Paul R. Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now a university professor, described it as "essentially a long-range execution without judge, jury or publicly presented evidence." This is a subject which must be left to the Americans to debate.

What are its probable consequences? The most obvious is that it is likely further to inflame some Muslims against the United States, drawing fresh recruits into the jihadist struggle. "Why kill him in this brutal, ugly way?" a member of his Awalik tribe was quoted as saying. "Killing him will not solve the Americans' problem with al-Qaeda. It will just increase its strength and sympathy in this region."

A key question, therefore, is whether al-Qaeda-including its Yemen-based offshoot, "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula"-is an organization or a cause. If it is an organization, killing its leaders must eventually drive it out of business. But if it is a cause, assassinations may have the contrary effect. A "martyred" Awlaki may prove a more effective recruiting sergeant than he was alive. A young American Muslim cleric, Yasir Qadhi, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on Oct. 3 that "Killing people does not make their ideas go away."

Awlaki's killing has inevitably been compared to that of Osama bin Laden, shot down last May in his home in Pakistan by a hit-team of U.S. Special Forces. The clandestine mission was seen by many Pakistanis as an intolerable infringement of their country's sovereignty. The assassination precipitated a grave crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations. It played into the hands of hard-liners in the Pakistani army and military intelligence service, no doubt causing them to tighten still further their links with jihadi groups, such as the Haqqani network. America's 10-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan will thus have been made more perilous and any outcome favorable to the United States more uncertain than ever.

In much the same way as he cheered bin Laden's death, U.S. President Barack Obama has hailed Awlaki's murder as a major blow to al-Qaeda. Many Muslims, however, will see the killing as further evidence that the American president, much like his belligerent predecessor George Bush, is at war with Islam. His slavish support for Israel as it seizes Palestinian land and denies statehood to the Palestinians has aroused great anger. His standing is already close to rock-bottom in the Arab and Muslim world. The killing of Awlaki will drive another nail in the coffin of what little remains of his reputation.

In an ironic twist of fortune, Dick Cheney, Bush's war-mongering defense secretary, said last weekend that Obama should apologize to Bush for criticizing the "enhanced interrogation techniques"-such as water-boarding-inflicted on al-Qaeda suspects, since Obama was himself now resorting to even more robust methods!

The United States is deeply unpopular in Yemen. The divide can be traced to the American-sponsored war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. …

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