Earlier today, President Obama confirmed the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Islamist radical and an important leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As a high-value target, Awlaki is said to have elevated AQAP to one of the most dangerous wings of the organization. He was a key asset in spreading jihadist propaganda, often engaging potential recruits and terrorist organizations outside al-Qaeda’s network. Awlaki’s death is a victory for the United States, but it is a far cry from ending the war on terrorism.
AQAP’s prowess as an international terrorist organization extends beyond Yemen. Its close affiliation with the Somali terrorist organization al Shabaab has facilitated the spread of jihad throughout the region. AQAP is known to have supplied al Shabaab with weapons, fighters, and advanced training. AQAP leadership has also encouraged its Somali associates to expand operations beyond Africa and specifically target the United States.
In 2008, Awlaki reached out to al Shabaab in an Internet message asking Allah to grant it success. A week later al Shabaab responded, praising the cleric as “one of the few scholars” who “defends the honor of the mujahideen.” In his propaganda messages, Awlaki called on Muslims to financially support al Shabaab and advised its leadership to have patience with Muslims in Somalia “suffering from the illness of tribalism, ignorance, and a campaign of defamation of sharia.”
Fluent in English and Arabic, Awlaki was a valuable asset in recruiting foreign fighters. His wide Internet following was attributed to his ability to capture the attention of impressionable audiences via the English-language magazine Inspire, YouTube videos, and the Internet forum “Islamic Awakening.” Awlaki’s death is a major loss to al-Qaeda, as there are few figures in the organization who are able to appeal to an international audience.
Yemen’s proximity to Somalia allows both al Shabaab and AQAP to effectively cooperate to exploit the poor governance, power vacuums, and porous borders that make both countries attractive staging areas for terrorism. In the 1990s, Osama bin Laden used Somalia as a safe haven for al-Qaeda fighters, and many key al-Shabaab leaders trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. These relations continue to exist, and Awlaki’s death will not change this.
In the past five months, al-Qaeda has been wounded by the loss of its founder and a number of high-level U.S. targets. The Obama Administration must maintain a robust offensive against al-Qaeda and confront threats to U.S. security in Yemen and the Horn of Africa with vigilant determination.