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Pulitzer Center: Don’t Shoot?

April 21, 2010

A member of Yemen's counterterrorism police force directs an exercise on January 16th in the mountains outside of the capital, Sana'a. The special unit is trained by U.S. and British Special Forces. (Paul Stephens)

Check it.

Last week, it was reported that the CIA may attempt to capture or kill Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based American cleric with ties to al-Qaeda.

Some say that’s bad news.

Not because Awlaki is a particularly loveable guy – he’s linked to both Umar Farooq Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of the plane on Christmas day, and to Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood last fall – but because he’s not important enough to kill.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, argues that Awlaki’s assassination would not hobble al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); it would simply give it a shiny new recruiting tool. Awlaki is “at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch [of al-Qaeda],” Johnsen writes in this week’s Newsweek. “There are dozens of men who could do more harm to the United States, and killing Awlaki would only embolden them and aid in recruitment.”

The CIA should be targeting people like Qasim al-Raymi and Nasser al-Wahayshi, commanders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or former Guantánamo Bay detainees like Said Ali al-Shihri and Ibrahim al-Rubaish, Johnsen writes. Those guys’ deaths would seriously undermine AQAP as an organization, while Awlaki’s death would not. Awlaki’s newfound celebrity in Western news outlets is the result of his American citizenship, not his status, if he has one at all – the organization has never claimed him as a member – within AQAP.

Moreover, past U.S.-backed attacks on Yemeni soil, like those on Shabwa Province last December that killed scores of civilians, have done little more than enrage Yemenis and embolden AQAP. The so-called “Shabwa Massacre” was highly publicized on jihadi sites, in a recruiting video and, months later, Yemeni clerics hundreds of miles north in Sana’a still occasionally cite the event in their sermons.

But should U.S. counterterrorism policy decisions hinge on whether or not its actions will anger AQAP?

Other Yemen analysts say no. They argue that targeted assassinations, even if they provide AQAP with recruiting fodder in the short term, are worthwhile. These analysts say Awlaki poses a threat to America for reasons other than his supposed influence within AQAP.

He is dangerous because he serves as a potent recruiting tool for young English speakers abroad. As a born-and-bred American, Awlaki speaks with un-accented American English. His fiery sermons, uploaded regularly to YouTube and jihadist websites, call upon young Muslim-Americans to murder their fellow citizens, for the sake of Islam – a plea made all the more bone-chilling by Awlaki’s American-newscaster drone.

While al-Shihri and Rubaish might have more influence over when and where the next suicide attacks will occur, Awlaki arguable has more influence over whether or not the attackers themselves will be Americans or Europeans, who can slip by security checkpoints and access sensitive sites on American soil.

A January U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said U.S. citizens who had been recruited by AQAP were the newest and one of the most worrisome threats. (In March, Sharif Mobley, a 26-year-old New Jersey man suspected of being an al-Qaida member, was captured by Yemeni security forces. Before leaving for Yemen, he had worked for a nuclear power plant in the U.S.)

So, to shoot or not to shoot? At this point, the White House’s orders stand: CIA-operated unmanned drones flying over Yemen can take a shot at Awlaki if they have a chance. Whether or not he is actually killed, and whether or not his death helps the U.S. cause, remains to be seen. At any rate, almost all Yemen analysts agree that there are no silver bullets – or silver drone attacks, so to speak – that will solve the AQAP problem in Yemen.

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