Al-Qaeda in Yemen remains a serious threat to the United States despite the death of Anwar al-Awlaqi, a prominent jihadist leader accused of planning attacks on American targets, experts say.
The killing in Yemen on Friday of the outspoken US-born cleric in an air raid was hailed by President Barack Obama as a “major blow” to terrorists, but analysts say Al-Qaeda’s influence in Yemen will not be greatly affected.
“Al-Qaeda was around before Awlaqi and his rise added little to the organisation except perhaps that he spoke fluent English and was able to communicate with Western audiences,” Nabil al-Bakiri, a Yemen-based expert on Islamic militant groups, told AFP.
“Awlaqi’s death will have no effect on the future of Al-Qaeda,” Bakiri said, adding that the slain militant did not even hold an organisational position within the group.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the US think tank Brookings and a former CIA agent, said in a commentary that the killing was a “significant setback for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but far from a fatal blow,” pointing out that Awlaqi was neither a top ranking commander nor a bomb-maker.
“In short, AQAP’s key players are still at large and very dangerous,” said Riedel, adding that Yemen’s slide into civil war will only benefit Al-Qaeda.
“Yemen is falling apart. The country is fragmenting into hostile blocks. The more broken Yemen becomes the more AQAP benefits because the break down in law and order allows it to operate and recruit more easily.”
AQAP has taken advantage of nearly nine months of deadly protests against veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bolster its presence in several southern provinces as well as Marib province, where Awlaqi was killed.
However, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied that cooperation from Yemeni authorities was wavering.
“There are a lot of people in the leadership there concerned about Awlaqi, concerned about terrorism,” Panetta told reporters on board his plane en route to Israel.
“We have developed over the years a relationship where we worked together, we shared intelligence, and we focused on some common targets there as well.
“And I think that will continue to be the case regardless of what ultimately happens with President Saleh,” said Panetta, who served as CIA director until taking over as Pentagon chief in July.
Meanwhile, in the United States, officials issued a worldwide travel alert warning its nationals of the “potential for retaliation” after Awlaqi’s death.
“Awlaqi’s standing as a preeminent English-language advocate of violence could potentially trigger anti-American acts worldwide to avenge his death,” the State Department said.
US intelligence officials believe he was linked to a US army major charged with shooting dead 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, and to a Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up an America-bound airliner on December 25, 2009.
Former California congresswoman Jane Harman, now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” programme on Sunday she believed Awlaqi’s death to be both psychological and operational blows to AQAP.
“AQAP had emerged as the more potent Al-Qaeda faction in terms of mounting attacks against us,” she said, adding that even though Awlaqi was not the titular head of AQAP, his involvement with the Fort Hood and US airliner incidents had made him particularly dangerous.
His death, Harman added, along with those of two other militants reportedly killed with him, “has enormous reach in terms of reducing — degrading the capability of Al-Qaeda to attack us.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden agreed that the killing of Awlaqi was significant.
“He was the part of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that motivated them and enabled them to go after the far enemy, that’s us. And so in that sense his death makes America much more safe,” Hayden said on the same programme.
He acknowledged, however, that the cleric’s death would not have great impact “on the fate or health of AQAP. In fact with his being gone, they may be even more focused against the ‘near enemy,’ and that’s Yemen and Saudi Arabia.”
Although US officials publicly deny any involvement in his death, tribal sources in Yemen said an American drone aircraft fired the missiles that killed Awlaqi.