By B. Raman
The USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has kept up its run of successes against Al Qaeda with the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen of Yemeni origin, and Samir Khan, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, in a Drone (pilotless plane) and a conventional air strike from a fighter aircraft on a convoy of three cars in which they were travelling in Yemen on September 30,2011.
Coming five months after the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad hide-out in Pakistan on May 2, the elimination of Awlaki and Samir Khan speaks eloquently of the improvement in the capability of the CIA and other US intelligence agencies to track down high-value targets of Al Qaeda — whether in the Af-Pak region or in Yemen — and eliminate them through precision strikes.
While the Abbottabad operation was carried out by the US intelligence and special forces without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities due to suspicions of the complicity of the Pakistani Army and intelligence with Osama bin Laden, the strikes in Yemen that killed Awlaki seem to have been carried out with the knowledge of the Yemeni authorities.
This speaks well of the level of trust between the US and Yemeni intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies — the kind of trust that has been significantly absent in the relations between the agencies of the US and Pakistan.
It is not yet known whether the intelligence that led to the elimination of Awlaki and Samir Khan came from human or technical sources and what role the Saudi intelligence, which closely monitors the activities of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), played in the operation.
Last year’s successful thwarting of an attempt in October by the AQAP to smuggle explosive devices concealed in printer cartridges to the US indicated that the intelligence probably came from human sources of the Saudi intelligence in the AQAP, which was originally formed by the merger of Al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and which has many Saudi operatives.
Successful operations of the Saudi intelligence against Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in the past indicated a high level of penetration of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi intelligence. It is likely that some of these assets are still available to the Saudi intelligence after the merger of the Saudi Al Qaeda with that of Yemen.
Reports that Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri, a Saudi, who was the explosive expert of Al Qaeda in the AQAP, was also in one of the cars and might have also been killed have not been confirmed so far. In fact, the Yemeni authorities have denied reports of the death of al-Asiri.
The strikes were made five miles from the town of Khashef in Yemen’s northern Jawf province, 87 miles east of the capital Sanaa.
If al-Asiri, a 29-year-old Yemen-based son of a retired soldier of the Saudi Army, had also been killed, it would have been a major blow to both the ideological-cum-motivational and operational wings of the AQAP. While the deaths of Awlaki and Samir Khan, who used to bring out “Inspire”, Al Qaeda’s online English journal, would be a severe blow to the ideological-cum-motivational wing of the AQAP, the survival of al-Asiri would ensure, at least for the time being, that the AQAP’s operational capabilities remain intact.
Born in New Mexico in the US in 1971, al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen. His father Nasser al-Awlaki used to be the Agriculture Minister of Yemen. After completing his education in the US, Awlaki went back to Yemen from where he returned after some time to work as a religious cleric in the US.
Initially, he preached in a mosque of San Diego, where in 2000 he allegedly met two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. The FBI reportedly questioned him after 9/11, but found no evidence to justify his detention. The U.S. National Commission’s report on the 9/11 strikes said that Midhar and Hazmi “respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him.” They were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. He then preached at a mosque in Virginia.
In 2004 he travelled back to Yemen, where he taught at a university before he was arrested and imprisoned in 2006 on suspicion of having links with Al Qaeda. In December 2007 he was released after he repented.
The Obama Administration’s plans to neutralize the AQAP, with the co-operation of the Yemeni security authorities, took shape after reports emerged in November, 2009, that Major Nidal Malik Hasan of the US Army, who shot down a number of US soldiers in a military camp in Fort Hood in Texas, was in touch with Awlaki in Yemen through E-mail.
The US authorities did not categorise the massacre of fellow soldiers by Major Hasan as an act of terrorism, but Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and others cited the connection between Hasan and Al-Awlaki as proof that the Fort Hood shooting was a terrorist attack. Their suspicions were strengthened by Al-Awlaki’s open approval of the act of Major Hasan.
Al Jazeera quoted al-Awlaki as saying in an interview: “My support to the operation was because the operation that brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one, and I endeavoured to explain my position regarding what happened because many Islamic organizations and preachers in the West condemned the operation.” While approving post-facto Major Hasan’s action, Awlaki refrained from saying anything which might have created a suspicion that he had prior knowledge of what the Major intended doing.
While continuing to treat Major Hasan’s act as not amounting to terrorism, the Obama Administration decided to act against the camps of the AQAP in Yemen. There were two major air raids in December 2009 — supposedly by Yemeni planes, but actually by US aircraft — which reportedly killed 30 members of the AQAP, but none of them was a high-value target. During the same month, the AQAP made an unsuccessful attempt to blow up a plane going to Detroit from Amsterdam through a Nigerian student allegedly motivated by Awlaki.
While the main wing of Al Qaeda based in Pakistan’s tribal areas continued to draw its recruits, volunteers and supporters from the Arabic-speaking residents of West Asia and North Africa, with little command of the English language, the AQAP, after Awlaki joined it, started drawing its adherents not only from the Arabic-speaking population of the region, but also from the community of Muslims in the English-speaking world who felt more comfortable with English than with Arabic.
It started an English web journal called “Inspire”, which was directed to the Muslims of the English-speaking world. It served the dual purpose of acting as the propaganda journal of the AQAP and on line training facility for enabling self-radicalised jihadis in the English-speaking world to acquire expertise in the use of weapons and explosives and techniques of waging a jihad without having to visit the training camps of the AQAP in Yemen.
The difficulties faced by self-radicalised Muslims of the English-speaking world due to their poor command of the Arabic language were sought to be removed through ideological and technical manuals and instructions in the English language.
The idea of propaganda, ideological indoctrination, motivation and self-acquired expertise through the medium of the English language was inspired by al- Awlaki, who felt as comfortable with the English language as he was with Arabic unlike Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders based in Pakistan and Yemen who felt more comfortable with Arabic than with English. Their poor command of English came in the way of their direct communication with their followers in the English-speaking world.
Under the guidance of Awlaki, the AQAP sought to capitalize on the interest of self-radicalised elements in the English-speaking world to take to jihad. After its failed attempt in October last year to smuggle explosive devices concealed in printer cartridges into the US, “Inspire” wrote that it had adopted a “strategy of a thousand cuts.” It explained this strategy in the following words: “To bring down America we do not need to strike big. In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect.”
The strategy of a thousand cuts adopted by the AQAP against the US was reminiscent of a similar strategy used by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) against India. The objectives of the ISI’s strategy were to discredit the Indian security agencies in the eyes of the Indian public, cause demoralisation, damage the Indian economy and drive a wedge between the Muslims and the non-Muslims in India.
The objectives of the AQAP were to create a fear psychosis in the US, make it over-react and spend an enormous amount on physical security thereby damaging the US economy. This was, in fact, not a new strategy of the AQ. Osama bin Laden had outlined this strategy in an audio message disseminated through Al Jazeera on November 2, 2004.
Awlaki thus gravitated to the Al Qaeda post-9/11 and motivated a new breed of English-speaking radicals. It had three Muslim radicals of American upbringing who played a major role in keeping anger focussed on the US and the rest of West. The first was Adam Gadahn, a white convert to Islam who sill operates from the Af-Pak region and handles Al Qaeda’s psywar set-up.The other two were Awlaki and Samir Khan.
The massive US retaliation in Afghanistan post-9/11 had triggered a debate in Al Qaeda about the wisdom of taking the jihad to the US homeland. Awlaki supported the need to take the jihad to the US homeland for final victory against the US.
Awlaki was an ideological and not an operational man–but after he arrived in Yemen and started guiding the AQAP, one noticed many changes. The AQAP tried to expand its area of operations from the Saudi-Yemeni-Somali region to the West, particularly the US. It started recruiting from among Muslims in the West—Arabs & non-Arabs– who would have no difficulty in traveling in the West.
The new breed of Al Qaeda and its affiliates came largely from the US, the UK and Germany. It consisted of a small number of white converts to Islam and many from different Muslim diasporas. The identities of Al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 recruits were largely known to Western intelligence agencies. Their ability to travel and operate in the West was weakened. Al Qaeda’s breed of new recruits inspired by Awlaki tried to replace them and take over the responsibility for operations in the West.
The new breed was more comfortable in Western languages than the older recruits. It had not come to the adverse notice of the intelligence agencies. Many of them had valid passports with valid visas for travel in the West. They had mastered the Net and the social media networks, but their thinking was not as grand as that of the older recruits who conceived the idea of the 9/11 strikes and had them planned and executed.
The new recruits were more adept in the tactical than in the strategic. The new breed devised new tactics such as better ways of avoiding detection of IEDs, but the innovative sweep of the new breed was not as spectacular as that of the older one. Its operational thinking was more classic. It went back to older tactical ideas such blowing-up planes, letter-bombs etc. It repeatedly failed because the intelligence agencies are more adept now in detecting and thwarting conventional methods of terrorism. As a result, the new breed inspired and motivated by Awlaki has not succeeded in carrying out any major strike in the West. One has to see what impact Awlaki’s death has on the continuing flow of new volunteers/recruits to the AQAP.