al-Awlaki booked for soliciting prostitution, 1997 (photo: San Diego PD, via KPBS)
The recent Predator strike against American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki has more significance than many in the press have given it. Even accounts on al-Jazeera quickly dismiss any change in al Qaeda threat. Fair enough, we should all still be vigilant, but there is little attention given to the real U.S.war of disruption-as-strategy. The significance should not be underestimated- it is a process of attrition even in Cyberspace. The others killed in the strike, include Samir Khan. Al Qaeda’s loss of Khan, who was the creator and editor of AQAP’s English-language magazine, “Inspire Magazine” from their franchise in theArabian Peninsula, is another example of the successful strategy of disruption of terrorism, in stages. Cyber-jihad is as modern and effective in its own way, if not as bloody, as the Predator drone.
The Western culturally dynamic appeal of al-Awlaki is what made him more dangerous in recruiting than even some of those close to Osama Bin Laden. These Cyber-jihadist operatives were killed in the September 30 airstrike near Khashef inYemen’s al-Jawf province, reminding us thatPakistanis not the only target of the dreaded drones. TheU.S.unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) might well have included fixed-wing naval aircraft, as yet unverified. The “assassination,” as some have termed it, of al-Awlaki and Khan, despite press to the contrary should be a set-back to AQAP ability to spread their radical ideology to the English-speaking Islamic world.
It is agreed that on-the-ground terrorist operative capabilities are not compromised. But, it is the psychological Cyberspace war that is set-back whenever such key Internet jihadists are taken out. Anwar al-Awlaki was not just a spokesman for terrorism, but was a charismatic English-speaking voice of unusual charm and ability in recruiting youth to jihad. The term, “Rock Star” was used in a CNN coverage of al-Awlaki. He was becoming a folk-hero, if not an icon of American potential for conversion to extremism, and ultimately terrorism. FBI Director Robert Mueller informed Congress, “Awlaki was the leader of external operations,” FBI Director Mueller testified. “He had taken a lead role planning and directing attacks on the homeland.”
It should be remembered that the Christmas day bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab and theFortHoodgunman, Nidal Hasan were following inspirationand in Hasan’s case direction from Al-Awlaki. CNN sources cite e-mails going from Hasan to al-Awlaki. CNN reports, “Hasan asking al-Awlaki about martyrdom, about when jihad is permissible (about which al-Awlaki had written volumes), the death of innocent bystanders in attacks. And after the shootings, al-Awlaki was quick to praise them. In the Al Jazeera interview, he calls the shooting “a heroic action.”
Those who oppose the use of drone strikes to kill hate-mongers like Awlaki should highlight their outrage for the scores of innocent civilians that have been killed due to the direct and explicit incitement of hatred and mass murder by the likes of him. Those who advocate drone strikes do not wish to harm any innocent civilians; innocent women and children are often used as human shields by these cowards.
Drones are meant to be discriminate strikes unlike the indiscriminate massacres and suicide attacks that are actively promoted, supported and preached by the Anwar Al-Awlakis of the world. They are a precise weapon against those who hide in areas where the writ or moral responsibility of any State does not extend to and from where they plan and preach mayhem across the planet.
The press stories of sacrificed blood and kidnapping rightfully are the major focus, and should be. But the art of persuasion and articulation of ideology must be remembered as a core element for those with a progressive voice of democracy and pluralism and reasonable dialogue to use. Al-Awlaki is cogent reminder that the Cyber-battle is used more often against us. FBI Director Mueller further stated, “The strike against its leadership, even a significant one, does not eliminate the potential for retaliation and other acts by AQAP.”
Okay, point taken, but in the battle of ideologies through al-Awlaki’s venue of online persuasion techniques, and glossy format, this was a substantial loss for the bad guys. As we are all witnessing, this war is increasingly being waged with attractively packaged DVDs, as well as on YouTube, Facebook, News blogs, in Groups, through the Worldwide Web, and is very much a part of the battle against terrorism.
LUBP’s fight for truth, is evidence of how just one online journal has caused distress among the purveyors of disinformation. In this way the media has become a central player. Indeed, Jihad is waged with inner struggle, physical struggle, and words. The “Jihad recollections,” and the Arabic language magazine Sada al-Malahim, “Echo of Battle,” published essays proselytizing militant rhetoric and pragmatic methodology proudly shows readers that anyone can be a terrorist. Khan’s “Inspire Magazine” was a vision of AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi, aka Abu Basir, appealing to impressionable youth. It illustrated the essential availability of the homegrown, homeschooled jihadist. Several years ago, Al-Wahayshi published the “leaderless-resistance” concept, that subsequent lone wolf and small group operatives might very well be traced back to.
Inspire Magazine contains an article suggesting a deep awareness of this concept: AQAP Nasir al-Wahayshi, is quoted in the “Media Conflict” as stating that “media work is half of the jihad.” Unfortunately, some people believe almost any conspiracy theory on a link online. In this world of visual stimulus, the more glamorous the format, the more truthful and factual the information seems to be for those without the time or inclination to challenge unsubstantiated claims. This makes the Internet all the more appealing for cyber-jihad. As evidenced by the communications one can see online between groups from such diverse regions as Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Chechnya and Bosnian jihadists, militants find each other, and have made wider use of technology online than perhaps our forces against them.
There is no question that Internet savvy replacements will be forthcoming, as in the past. Other self-proclaimed imams, whether Yemeni-American or from somewhere else will emerge, but each hit on a talented vocal-combatant increases internal paranoia within al Qaeda, and further disruption for these Wahhabi Web-warriors. Great communicators with sufficient jihadist credentials are not easy to find. Noteworthy, is that fact that the 2010 killing in Yemen of AQAP’s Arabic-language proponent, Nayf bin Mohammed al-Qahtani, and the founder of Sada al-Malahim and Malahim media, completely interrupted its subsequent online editions. Gone were the regular postings that were occuring every two months from its inception in 2008 to February 2011- no further editions have been forthcoming. This is progress.
No one is claiming that these effective strikes against cyber warriors will substantially change terrorist strikes in general. But, there is far too much dismissal of, for example, the bin Laden killing when it happened, and disparaging of the al-Awlaki and Khan hit, that, to use a pun, is off the mark.
Those that rush to diminish the significance of al-Awlaki’s death are only unwittingly assisting the propaganda from the terrorist themselves. From Cyber worms lodged inIran’s nuclear system, to simply taking down websites, show the extent to which we are involved in, and the importance of, the Internet technology al-Awlaki utilized, but also the effectiveness of a talented jihadist voice. RecentlyPakistanofficials have been even suggesting closing down Facebook; taking a page out of the Chinese solution for dealing with redress of the government. But, closing down websites accomplishes little. The Internet is wide open, and clever IT technicians find ways around any censoring device. In today’s world you cannot close the public to bad or good ideas Suppressing information is no substitute for effectively articulating our own ideology.
This successful pinpoint operation has shown that Predator drones are making a difference in selective targeting of terrorists, even the voices of terrorism. Suicide bombers and lone shooters inspired by al-Awlaki and Khan’s Internet skills have no regard for innocent lives; they deserved to give up theirs. In the war against physical and cyber targets this successful operation is a definitive sign of progress sorely needed.