What Awlaki's death means for Yemeni President Saleh
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
October 4th, 2011
02:27 PM ET

What Awlaki's death means for Yemeni President Saleh

Editor’s Note: Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

By Shashank Joshi – Special to CNN

If you watch one of Anwar al-Awlaki’s hundreds of YouTube videos, the first thing that strikes you is the American accent in which he delivers his exhortations to jihad, a residue of his childhood in New Mexico and education at Colorado State. But it’s misleading. Awlaki spent his teens, and his final and most influential years, in Yemen. And that’s where the aftershocks will be felt most strongly, just one week after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. In life, as it may prove in death, Awlaki was probably more important to the Saleh’s political life than he was to the global jihadi movement.

The rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) presented a strange opportunity for the Yemeni government. AQAP coalesced in 2009, formed from the merger of al Qaeda in Yemen and the withering al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. The group’s head, Nasir al-Wihayshi, was bin Laden’s personal secretary for nearly four years until the famed Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.

Over the next several years al Qaeda in Yemen was decapitated and degraded, but Wihayshi built it up again to the point where it dominated American thinking about global terrorism. In early 2011, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), told the Senate that AQAP was “probably the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland”. AQAP' ability to threaten the U.S. homeland – as with the underpants bomber of 2009, and last year’s cartridge bomb plot – meant that the U.S. saw Yemen was seen almost exclusively through the lens of the war on terror.

Awlaki, rightly or wrongly, was seen as the vanguard of AQAP. The U.S. government has claimed that he had both an operational role – encouraging particular attacks and facilitating training camps – and a potentially more dangerous inspirational role, in which his English-language skills and experience in the West made him especially effective at recruiting. President Obama went as far as to label him, posthumously, “the leader of external operations” for the group. For all these reasons, Awlaki and AQAP became, in the U.S. at least, the most prominent and feared embodiments of international terrorism after bin Laden.

Yemenis saw things rather differently. Most did not know who Awlaki was, or why his aerial assassination was acceptable. And President Saleh, for years, has had his own calculations. He was far more concerned by Shia Houthi rebels in the north and secessionists in the south than he was by AQAP. Although Saleh sought to avoid looking like a Western puppet, he quickly realized that this was an opportunity to siphon off millions of dollars in U.S. aid ($200 million for counterterrorism in 2011 alone), and get training for his security forces.

That’s why the death of Yemen’s bête noire, sometimes called the ‘bin Laden of the internet’, has such curious timing. If Saleh’s strategy for milking the U.S. sounds familiar, it’s because it combines a series of tricks employed by Amerian allies around the world. Mubarak always claimed that he was a bulwark against a rising tide of violent extremism. And Pakistan, if you recall, has perfected a technique whereby Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are arrested or killed days before a U.S. Senator is due to visit. It’s a safety valve to relieve accumulated U.S. pressure and keep the aid money flowing.

Has Saleh lifted this trick? The situation today is simple enough. Yemen is disintegrating at least in part because the president, through his sons and nephews, is refusing to give up power. There’s every chance that the intelligence leading to Awlaki’s assassination by U.S. drones was supplied as a last ditch attempt at political survival – Saleh’s way of telling the wary Americans that he was the only man who could be trusted to dismantle a dangerous terrorist group.

It wouldn’t be the first time he sent that message. Under pressure from popular protests in March, Saleh simply withdrew his elite units from the al Qaeda blighted province of Abyan to give Western leaders a taste of what might follow his ouster. If Awlaki was a victim of Yemen’s faltering revolution, has Saleh therefore killed the goose that laid the golden eggs? Last year, the president famously told a U.S. diplomat that the Americans were “hot-blooded and hasty when you need us”, but “cold-blooded and British when we need you”. Now, Saleh is desperately trying to ensure that the Americans stay at least warm-blooded, by pointing to the drone strike as evidence of his crucial importance. Is the U.S.so gullible that it will buy this? History suggests it may well be.

But even if Saleh is pushed out – and he is trying the patience of even allies like Saudi Arabia – his successors needn’t worry about being abandoned. The U.S. has been rapidly escalating (frequently counterproductive) drone strikes in Yemen over past months, partly out of concern that AQAP is building links to Somalia’s main insurgent group, al-Shabab. The evidence for this is mixed and flimsy, but it’s a new foreign policy meme in Washington that is only growing in influence. Perhaps the greatest danger now is that Saleh succeeds in persuading his outside backers that he is indeed their man in Sana’a but, by clinging on, tears Yemen apart. The resulting opportunities for al Qaeda could make Awlaki pale into insignificance.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shashank Joshi.

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Topics: Terrorism • Yemen

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    No doubt Al Awlaki was a huge loss for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Did Saleh take the credit for his elimination? I thought Al Awlaki was tipped off by some locals, who resent Al Qaeda's presence there! Can AQAP survive now without Awlaki? He was an asset to them as he spoke an American English, had a charismatic aura and a disarming smile. He knew the intricacies of the social media and was adept at using them to spread jihadism in the West. Yet the number of Western recruits is still small compared to those from Muslim countries. The death of Awlaki wouldn't be the end of the AQAP in Yemen. They will keep a low profile. As contact with their brethren in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and other parts of the world is getting increasingly risky, the Al Qaeda function as fringe groups. They follow the agenda of jihadism, have their territories and do their businesses. One fine day some would turn over a new leaf.

    October 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    I see that this cursed Ali Abdullah Saleh will take credit for the wanton murder of Anwar al-Awlaki. This man(Saleh) is the true face of Evil in the Middle East and deserves to be villified far more than Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad but won't be since he's a stooge of the U.S. No wonder so many Muslims hate this country so. This is totally repulsive!!!

    October 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • Rz

      ...cursed...wanton murder...true face of Evil...deserves to be vilified...stooge...Muslims hate...repulsive !!!
      Well, I guess this summation is as good as any.

      October 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Reply
    • Daniel

      Thank you, Onesmallvoice. You said it all!

      October 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  3. Toppolina

    We only have ourselves to blame. If we fell in the trap of Yemen, Egypt, and Pakistan, that is because of lack of international knowledge that plagues Americans who still think the world stops at their borders. Hopefully now we know that there are people beyond our borders who can love us if we think smart. American is a great nation, but regrettably is involved in so many useless fronts and conflicts around the world, and this is weakening and broking the country.

    October 5, 2011 at 9:13 am | Reply
    • Daniel

      Well said, Toppolina. The problem is, is that we Americans have become so arrogant and self-righteous that we think that we know more about what people around the world want the the people do themselves and this is definately not true at all. Besides, we have too many problems here at home to be involved with the rest of the world!!!

      October 5, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  4. Sameer Alqubaty

    We the Yemenis in general have come to the conclusion that the US can stop Alqaeda from any harmful deeds any where in the world by siding the people of such locations.For Yemen Alqaeda is a hog wash, there is no such Alqaeda, only in the minds of Saleh and Saudi Arabia, the real enemies of the free democratic educated world... UNFORTUNATELY THE USA IS BEHIND SUCH THUGS FOR THE SAKE OF ITS INTERESTS IN THE SAUDI WEALTH.THAT'S WHY THE USA DOES NOT REALLY STRONGLY SUPPORT THE POOR YEMENIS AGAINST THEIR TYRANT AS LIBYA.

    October 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • Laura

      "Achmed, did you hear???""What?""Anwar has gone to paradise!""WHAT?""Anwar has gone to...""I HEARD you! It can't be! How did this hpepan?""Well, apparently, the Americans blew him up. He went to pieces, as it were.""Don't tell me.....A DRONE?""Yes. He was just tooling along in his Lada, minding his own business and next thing he knew, he was here, there and everywhere.""Wonder what twit they will get to replace him?""Hate to tell you Achmed but it's YOU!""ME???""Yes. AND I want you to go find another cave to live in! I'll help you pack...."

      August 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  5. shay5ah

    It's Not the first time advocated by the Yemeni government to combat terrorism
    there is no shame in cooperating in terror fight..because it's Not limited to the country without the other , so we have to be one hand against the terror..
    yemen always allies in the fight on terror because the terror isn't just Threatens usa to say that's Ali Abdullah saleh help usa just to protect his politics ,,the Terror is Threatens all the world ..

    October 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  6. InfidelHere

    We can sugarcoat this all you want, but make no mistake...Awlaki was a "good" muslim, NOT a "bad" one! Call him what you want to "feel" good about yourself...Islamic militants, radicals, extremists, al-Qaida, fundamentalists, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists, or whatever is the PC term for today are actually "good" Muslims, not bad ones. The "radicals" like Awlaki haven't corrupted Islam, hijacked their religion, nor interpreted it incorrectly, and therefore they aren't radicals or extremists!

    Islam isn't a peaceful religion; it is a declaration of war against all mankind. While "bad" Muslims can be moderate, peaceful or "not-Muslim-enough", these people have NO influence because even their “holy” (cough-cough) Koran tells "good" Muslims to KILL them!!

    I wish that our news organizations would answer that question instead of giving us the same 'ole terms like "radical" and "extremists" when describing Awlaki when all the evidence points that they are actually being "good" muslims...not BAD ones!!

    October 6, 2011 at 8:59 am | Reply
    • us marine

      the terror is being dealt with, look at the list of losers (ossama (( who said he would die fighting didn't even put up a fight all the noise from the choppers should have warned him, not one U.S. casualty in the operation. ooh rah to Navy Seals)) and all the other muslim exterminated oops i mean extremist) who are suffering the fires of hell and you to will pay, unless you stay your as in the closet see ya would'nt want to be ya! ha ha ha

      October 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  7. claude

    The president is obama. The US economy is in shambles. The money they are pouring out to save american from being harmed or killed around the world is increasing by the day. Soon USA will be a beggars paradise. Even if all the wealthy americans like Buffet give away all their wealth, the behemoth expenditure of washington is going to finally break the american economy. Good luck, Egypt, pakistan, yemen.

    October 6, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply

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