The prominence of Anwar al-Awlaki in al-Qaeda had been a symptom of the organization’s degradation under the relentless attack of U.S. and allied intelligence services over the past decade. For the U.S.-born Yemeni Youtube preacher was not exactly your battle-hardened field commander who’d made his name as a leader of men in battle; nor was he the Islamic scholar he purported to be — if anything, on that front, Awlaki may have personified the notion that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” No, his real importance to the movement was his ability to communicate, via new- and social-media, with the English-speaking Muslim youth of the West, reaching them in an idiom accessible, often witty that resonated with their own lived experience — a facility that was beyond the capabilities of the stolid, scolding Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, or even the infinitely more charismatic “Sheikh” he replaced, Osama bin Laden. But that was hardly a strategy to ignite the mass jihadist rebellion in Muslim countries of which Bin Laden had fantasized.While associated with one or two failed attempts to mount attacks from Yemen on U.S. soil — the underpants bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, and the explosive toner-cartridges air freighted towards the U.S. last year — the quality of the plots, and of the operatives used to carry them out, was decidedly second-string in comparison to al-Qaeda’s “greatest hits”. His greater significance in the organization was his ability to sermonize, electronically, to disaffected young Muslims born and raised in Western countries and turn them onto a path of terrorism in the name of jihad. The most notable of these might have been the man accused of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Maj. Nidal Hassan.
Awlaki was an al-Qaeda recruiter at ease on Facebook and YouTube, reaching out through demagoguery — and often, individual email ministry — to troubled minds, and turning a few to his cause. But it’s been a low-yield affair, a kind of al-Qaeda-by-remote made necessary because the organization is no longer capable of running the large training camps in Afghanistan where it was able to invest years of training in its operatives before sending them back into the West to wreak havoc. Instead, one or two would-be “martyrs” could be seduced into some low-level plot here and there without ever having to travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan — dangerous, yes, in a criminal sort of way, but hardly the sort of earth-shaking mass casualty terror of 9/11.
Awlaki was al-Qaeda’s top televangelist, when it was plain to see that the movement was no longer in a position to convene its congregation in physical time and space. He was the moving spirit behind — and often the star contributor to — of the Qaeda magazine Inspire, a slick glossy produced by his chapter of al-Qaeda, written in English, and pitched at post-adolescent Muslim boys in the West — lots of snarky photo captions about Western political figures, lots of technology and macro-lens close-ups of bits of weaponry, lots of snappy little front-of-book witticisms and gangsta-rapper-like slap-downs of rivals. Not much advertising. The editor of the magazine was reportedly killed in the same drone strike.
So, the movement’s ability to poison the minds of young, and mostly isolated Muslims in the West with a terrorist agenda has been struck a blow. But it was always something of a fringe affair. Awlaki’s death may not make all that much difference to al-Qaeda, because even at his best, his significance, such as it was, was a sign that al-Qaeda had fallen on hard times.