Woke up this morning to news that notorious American-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen. I believe this is a significant blow to Al Qaeda. A few key points:
--Awlaki, often called "the Bin Laden of the Internet," was the driving force behind Al Qaeda's message in the Western, English-speaking world. As an American citizen who lived half of his 40 years in the United States and attended Colorado State University, he was able to break down the language barrier and speak directly to aspiring young jihadists here and in Great Britain.
That is something Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Arabic speakers, could not do. In his online sermons, Awlaki could say to young Muslims in Chicago and New York City: "I've lived in America. I know what you are going through in that infidel land. I feel your pain."
--That familiarity with the ways of the West made Awlaki, not Osama bin Laden, the most influential Islamic jihadist in the Western world as far back as 2008. Young Muslims here could relate to the young, hip and charismatic Awlaki in a way they could not connect to bin Laden. One major way Awlaki was able to do that was through Al Qaeda's glossy, English-language online magazine, Inspire, which is published out of Yemen and targets American Muslims.
--Awlaki's huge ideological influence on the global jihad was seen on YouTube, where he was a sensation, and in the massive movement of DVDs and CDs featuring his sermons. In short, he was a jihadi rock star.
Look no further than northern Virginia, where I broke the story in June 2010 for CBN News that the largest Islamic supermarket in the Washington, D.C., area was selling dozens of Awlaki's DVDs and CDs. As the owner of the store told me on camera: "They are very good sellers." And just minutes from the nation's capital. What a comforting thought. I talk about Awlaki's influence at length in my book, The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You About the Islamist Threat.
--Unlike another American-born Al Qaeda propagandist, Adam Gadahn (a.k.a. "Azzam the American"), Awlaki, who was an imam at mosques in San Diego and northern Virginia before leaving the U.S. in 2002, had major religious street cred in the radical Islamic world.
In my conversation last year in London with Al Qaeda-linked, global terrorist Saad al-Faqih, he went out of his way to praise Awlaki as a religious scholar. Al Faqih, a former associate of Osama bin Laden, would not offer such praise lightly. I believe that Awlaki's unique blend of Westernized media savvy and religious gravitas make him, in many respects, even more difficult for Al Qaeda to replace at this stage than Osama bin Laden.
--Over the past two years, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki's outfit, had become AQ's most active branch in terms of plots against the U.S. homeland--particularly with Al Qaeda's hiearchy in the tribal regions of Pakistan under constant pressure from U.S. airstrikes.
Let's not forget the infamous cargo plane plot of October 2010, which originated in Yemen (see some of my exclusive details about that plot here). Also, Awlaki was in direct contact with both Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and was cited as an inspiration by the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
In fact, in practically every homegrown jihad case I've investigated over the past three years--and there have been a lot of them--Awlaki has been named as a major influence by those involved.
Any way you slice it, this is a big victory for the United States. Yes, Awlaki's memory will live on in his recordings and on YouTube and he will be hailed by jihadists worldwide as a martyr. But taking him out of the picture considerably weakens Al Qaeda's messaging and operations out of what had become its most active hotspot, Yemen.
One concern: as we continue to strike blows against Al Qaeda, let's remember that AQ is just one cog in a much broader global jihad. To hear the Obama administration tell it, if we defeat Al Qaeda, we can basically just pack up our bags and go home because the War on Terror is over. Not by a longshot. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, homegrown jihadis and of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, just to name a few, are not only alive and kicking but in many cases (Iran, Hezbollah,the Brotherhood, etc.) growing in strength thanks to this administration's disastrous foreign policy decisions.
Big kudos for taking out bin Laden and Awlaki, absolutely. But let's not lose sight of the big picture. This is a long war with many players.