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.