Earlier today, the Government of Yemen announced that the radical, American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was dead. Here's the question that we really need to ask: so what? What is the impact of the death of Anwar al-Awlaki to al-Qaeda and the global terrorism movement as a whole.
Frankly, I think that the importance of this guy is way overrated. True, many people listen to him and he inspired suicide-bomber wannabes, such as Faisal Shahzad, Nidal Malik Hasan, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Yet, at the same time, al-Qaeda's power has been declining drastically because of various U.S. actions in the post-9/11 period. In particular, of course, as today illustrates, the drone program has taken out a number of al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-aligned terrorists. Its assets have been tracked and frozen. American intelligence gathering and coordination has markedly improved, as it has done a good job monitoring the whereabouts of al-Qaeda figures. And let's not forget about the much-criticized quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, which eliminated many of al-Qaeda's key people. The more key people of the movement that have gotten killed, the weaker the link between al-Qaeda and its branches, and ultimately its sympathizers and financiers in the Middle East
And remember, foot soldiers are very easy to replace, but commanders not so much, as these as people are time and battle-tested. The more old-timers who are lost, the weaker the movement will inevitably be. These people possess the hard-earned currency of trust because they have been through fire and hell. Frankly, terrorism is a very lonely way of living: terrorists can't really trust others easily because there's always the possibility of entrapment by foreign agents. Thus, the trust-based social network are very important.
Anwar al-Awlaki's rise to prominence was thanks to the dire straits of al-Qaeda. A quick look at the biography of this guy shows that he is essentially an opportunist. He was someone who loved the spotlight. Back in the U.S., he presented himself as a moderate voice of Islam, though, obviously, he changed his tune once abroad. I am wiling to bet that al-Awlaki got spooked after being interrogated after 9/11 due to his familiarity with some of the 9/11 hijackers, and in order to avoid imprisonment, he then moved to the Middle East, where he became a radical.
He didn't get into prominence until 2009, when the suicidal trio of Faisal Shahzad, Nidal Malik Hasan, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab jumped onto the scene and claimed themselves to be influenced by al-Awlaki. At that point, al-Qaeda had been beaten badly in Iraq and even in Afghanistan. It finances were in trouble, its core leadership decimated, and was no longer able to organize and coordinate effectively, significantly reducing the likelihood of any repeat spectacular 9/11-style attacks. Even its branches, such as the Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, were dismantled and supplanted by true indigenous Islamic movements.
Al-Awlaki was the last hope for al-Qaeda to remain relevant. He, however, did not have the link, the network, nor the financial capacity of the "old" members of al-Qaeda. I suspect even the al-Qaeda higher ups didn't really trust this guy, likely branding him an opportunist, considering his track record. The problem was that they didn't have any other option. They couldn't launch any spectacular attack, they couldn't show results to their financiers back in the Gulf. Thus al-Awlaki's role, to fill the missing gap, as the media propaganda machine to show that al-Qaeda was still relevant.
Well, he is dead now. There of course will be people trying to nominate him as a martyr, and I don't doubt that he'd get the dubious distinction, because at this point, al-Qaeda needs as many heroes as possible to sustain its weakened and frayed organization. Still, he is just a symptom of the growing decentralization of al-Qaeda, thanks to the collapse of its core. No doubt, there will be another Anwar al-Awlaki later, perhaps soon, because al-Qaeda desperately wants to stay relevant and united as a global movement. Otherwise, its branches would keep splintering, reducing their reliance to the central movement.
Finally, for anyone questioning whether the U.S. has the right to kill its "citizen:" heck, for me, the moment he joined al-Qaeda, he had already forfeited his citizenship. The first, the fourth, and the fifth amendments didn't apply here.