"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A rhetorical question on Awlaki

Greg has a lengthy and worthwhile counter in the "how important is al-Awlaki debate".   I agree largely with his points, although I am beginning to stray from the "he's a nothing" camp very, very slightly- though through no particular skill of his own.   I've said before that he is basically a reality show jihadi, someone who is famous largely for being famous.  That said, of course, public relations is a huge part of international terrorism, and his fame, however unearned, is not entirely irrelevant.

I'm going to quote something from Greg's piece, which is not the thrust of the excellent analysis, but is important to what I want to talk about.

Also, isn’t it possible that knowing what we know AQAP and its development that as the Obama administration talks about al-Awlaki and as the media focuses on him, AQAP continues to push him forward, hoping to take advantage of all the free advertising? Basically, hoping that his name and association with AQAP can bring them more western recruits.  
This would explain his “poorly veiled coming out” and the reason AQAP didn’t talk about him prior to the attempt on Muhammad bin Nayyif and the Christmas Day plot, because he wasn’t integral to either one, including the one on the US. But as the Obama Administration focused on him, AQAP kept pushing him more and more to the front and now, after the parcel bomb plot we have a “Foreign Operations Unit” that he may or may not be the head of. 

Greg and I agree on this- the admin and the media have pushed him forward, possibly transforming him from a fairly obscure cleric about for whom one would have to twist and torture loose connections to make into a major figure to someone who "may or may not be the head of" a new unit in AQAP.  My take on the unit is that it is a sideshow for the leadership, a cheap way to do things on the side, but not part of their major plans.  Regardless, there is the potential for al-Awlaki to "inspire" people to do bad things in the US.

I agree that right now taking him out would only make things worse.  He isn't important enough to waste time and resources on, and because he is still largely unknown in Yemen, it would look punitive and reactionary and totally unnecessary to the people we need to court.   Ideally, we would stop focusing on this guy and his immature violence-junkie sidekick Samir Khan and they could recede from the foreground.  But I am not expecting the media to let go their hold on a charismatic English-speaker who is part American.  

So, and here is the rhetorical- will there be a point when, given the trends, al-Awlaki will become important enough to take out, if not by arrest than by assassination?  Can anyone foresee that day, or is it ludicrous?  It is partly philosophical, partly tactical- can our incessant pimping of his importance make him important?  I don't have an answer- I lean toward "no", but some other events which I need to write about could persuade me otherwise.   Do any of you have any thoughts?


  1. I'm not specialist, on AQAP specifically or Yemen generally. I'd like to step significantly back from the weeds, maybe up to the 30,000 foot level, for just single broader point.

    We can't defeat an idea just with guns. We need an idea ourselves. We have several ideas that I think are pretty good. Let's look at one of them: the smallish sample of Yemenis I was in contact with as 2008 turned over to 2009 were very excited about the election of President Obama. I'm sure, though, that the same held true across Yemen and the Middle East. They, like many Europeans, and many of the people who supported and worked for the President's election, thought, among other things, that his election represented a return to rule of law based policies. Very few of those people think that the assassination of an American citizen who has been convicted of no crime, and whose actual involvement in any crime is obscure and subject to much rumor meet those expectations.

    By all means try to arrest the man if you think he's committed a crime. Just killing people, in a seemingly lawless fashion, reduces our "idea" to might makes right.

    Charley Carpenter

  2. (I recognize that the same lawyers who are willing to argue what the meaning of is is can also find arguments for the legality of killing this man in his sleep, while he's walking to the grocery store, or some such. The critical question is whether those people, in Yemen or elsewhere, who are reachable are going to be convinced. In shorthand, this is a jury trial, not an argument among law professors.)


  3. Charley- I like the "jury trial" formulation, and I agree with you that it isn't lawyers we are trying to win over. There is a lively debate over the legality of killing al-Awlaki, and I am enjoying it, but from a strictly Yemen standpoint it is almost irrelevant. That is why I am still on the "arrest, maybe, but preferably ignore" side of the Awlaki debate. I am not sure though if it will come to a point where arresting/killing him might, on the balance, be less harmful from a CT perspective than not. I don't know if there could ever be that point- probably not.

    Also, in general, (and this is not directed at any particular comment, just my nagging insides) I don't mean to write so blithely about "killing" or "taking out". When it comes down to it, I don't have a clue what that actually is like. I hope I don't come across as faux-macho or anything; I just don't want to insert endless caveats, and I trust my readers to know that we are dealing with real people and real circumstances.

  4. Depends how much of terrorism you think is propaganda. He’s a terrific propaganda tool for AQAP, at least in the west (is he as big in Europe as he is in the US?) The biggest IRA terrorist successes came when they seemed to bring down the Anglo-Irish from the inside; does al-Awlaki represent that? And if we continue to pimp him, as you so eloquently put it, it only increases his ability to do just that.

    But look at it from another point of view: his visibility may eventually cost him and AQAP. Nobody in the US cared about AQ until we could put a face to the evil- Bin Laden. Even then, his ACTUALY tactical importance was questionable, at best. The American public needs an enemy to “target” and terrorist groups are slow to supply those. But now we’ve created one, for better or worse. Plus, if his importance increases in Yemen, isn’t it better for us that we created a “leader” out of someone you portray as a low-level joke?