By Rob Strayer
The headline this morning is that Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. He was not the symbolic leader for the al Qaeda movement that Osama bin Laden was, nor was he responsible for orchestrating the deaths of thousands, but in recent years, he played a more significant operational role than bin Laden. Awlaki is reported to have inspired attempted attacks on the United States through his involvement with the Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shazhad. He was also reported to have inspired Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan to kill 13 Americans. As a U.S. citizen and English speaker, he had the potential to inspire other homegrown terrorists, presenting a tangible threat to the United States in a way that bin Laden was only capable of doing through surrogates.
At this time, there are several open questions, some of which may be answered in the coming days and weeks:
· Will the Administration release the level of detail that it did about the operation that killed bin Laden? There will be pressure on the Administration to release information about how it tracked and killed Awlaki, but it may choose not to do so in order to protect its sources and methods or the fragile Yemeni government.
· With the current political turmoil in Yemen, and the precarious status of President Saleh’s government, were Yemeni officials helpful in providing intelligence to target Awlaki? And will cooperation with the United States undermine the Yemeni government?
· What was Awlaki’s actual role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)? Was he limited to developing propaganda and inspiring individuals to commit terrorist acts or was he involved in raising funds and giving strategic and tactical direction to the AQAP organization?
Rob Strayer is the Director of the National Security Preparedness Group at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Previously, Strayer served as the Republican Deputy Staff Director for Senator Susan Collins on the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where he managed the drafting and mark-up of cyber security and bioterrorism legislation.