Imam Anwar al Awlaki held two important positions in the cobweb of international Jihadi terror. First, he was one of the emerging younger leaders of al Qaeda after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Out of Yemen, from which his family originates, he had built a network of recruits capable of performing missions in the Arabian Peninsula, but also communicating with the Shabab of Somalia and many cells inside the West. His reach in recruitment was as far as Jihadists have been indoctrinated. The Nigerian Abdelmutalib, known as the Christmas day bomber in the US, was also connected to the Yemeni-based cleric. In a sense, al Awlaki was one of the most effective al Qaeda international officers. His loss will undoubtedly be felt –at least for a while - within the ranks of the network.
But his other position is even more important to Americans. The New Mexico-born Jihadist had established a web of American citizens, indoctrinated and incited to strike against US national security. Shazad, the terrorist who tried to blow up a car in Times Square, and Major Nidal Hassan, who massacred more than a dozen military in Ft Hood, are just two sinister examples of the American Jihadi network linked to al Awlaki. His writings in American English, his speeches and his savvy knowledge of American culture and politics made him in reality the “emir” of US citizens who followed the Jihadi ideology. Thus, his killing is in fact a strike at the head of the most dangerous network operating inside American borders, not just internationally. From that perspective, the “coalition against terror” has scored a point in its war with al Qaeda. But, although this could be coined as a major tactical victory, it is not a strategic one.
As I made the case with Osama Bin Laden’s elimination, the US is not at war with a mafia of criminals who would be impressed with the elimination of the capo. The Jihadists who have already been indoctrinated won’t be deterred by the missiles or bullets that took the lives of their emirs or commanders. In fact, just the opposite will occur. The “martyrdom” (al Istishaad) of these al Qaeda leaders will be viewed from the prism of the ideology that transformed their universe. Osama and Anwar are now seen as floating in the Jenna (heaven) while the Jihadi mission will rest upon the shoulders of the next wave, and on and on. Western-minded people, or non-Jihadi individuals in the Arab world, understand the concept of deterrence. The Jihadists, Salafists or Khomeinists alike, are brought up to feed from the martyrdom of their leaders and brothers in arms and take strength from that, so that they don’t react in fear.
The Internet Jihadist
The reason behind this clone-like phenomenon is ideology, which is in fact the center of al Qaeda, not its leaders. The ideology was created by Jihadism, not the other way around. When a product of this ideologic doctrine is eliminated, this doesn’t affect the factory; it will keep producing more, and will use their eliminations to mobilize further.
There is not now, and won’t be, any victory in the War on Terror (or the war with the Jihadists) unless there is a victory in the War of Ideas, which means that the ideology producing and inspiring the terrorists and would-be terrorists has to be identified and responded to. Naturally, the best parties to engage in this counter campaign are the societies where it has been breeding, in the Greater Middle East where there are the anti-Jihadists, civil societies and secular forces.
Unfortunately the current Administration and the bureaucracy of the past Administration did just the opposite. Instead of identifying the Jihadi ideology, they covered up for it. And instead of partnering with the secular and democratic forces in the Arab Spring, Washington today is flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence, while our intelligence and military are successful in their part of the war by eliminating the war lords of Jihadism, our foreign policy and domestic policies are allowing the Jihadists, with their Islamist ideological roots, to grow. Therefore the killing of al Awlaki is a small victory in an ocean of defeat.
The immediate question in mind is: whose is next. Remember that al Awlaki operated within the US openly, as he even was invited to lecture at the Pentagon. Major Hassan, too, delivered lectures within our defense establishment. Also, In the past decade, a prominent member of an Islamist lobby group, Ismael Royer, was part of a terror training network in Virginia. The list is long. So the undeniable outlook for the future is quantitative: al Awlaki is gone but his Jihadists have been multiplying.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad. He advises members of the US Congress and the European Parliament on Terrorism and teaches Global Strategies in Washington DC