May 15, 2011

TSG IntelBrief: Anwar Al-Awlaki: The New Al-Qa’ida Leader in Yemen?



Open source media reports that Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is currently engaging in an internal debate about formally appointing Anwar al-Awlaki as its leader. This debate is likely to have only one conclusion.

The timing of this debate is largely and deliberately symbolic following the death of Usama bin Laden (UBL) but symbolism is vitally important to an organisation whose leader used symbolism and almost poetic language to describe the acts of violence and terror for which he was responsible.


Only days after UBL's death, Al-Awlaki was lucky to survive a multiple missile attack, which killed two other AQAP personnel in Yemen. According to Yemen's Ministry of Defense a drone fired missiles in the province of Shabwa at a car carrying two brothers, identified by Yemeni officials as Musa'id and Abdullah Mubarak.

Reports from Washington indicate that US commanders had believed they had one of AQAP's most valuable targets in their sights – which once again show the quality of targeting intelligence available to the US - and will be the cause of considerable concern to AQAP.

However, as Napoleon once said, "I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one".  Al-Awlaki is lucky.

The reported attempt to kill him is believed to be the first known US military strike within Yemen since May 2010, when missiles mistakenly killed one of the Yemeni President's envoys.  In September 2010, Yemen's foreign minister said that such unmanned strikes had been suspended.

AQAP will assume a greater importance following the death of UBL.  The Soufan Group is in the process of analysing the likely trajectory of the movement following the removal of UBL, and the political chaos that has engulfed Pakistan and the US relationship.

The selection of Anwar al-Awlaki as leader of AQAP has all the hallmarks of a counter-propaganda campaign plan: Al-Qa'ida Core is seen to be fighting back through the appointment of a media-savvy, articulate and charismatic leader – everything in fact Ayman Al-Zawahiri is not.

And of course it will not go un-noticed that the commander designate of AQAP is in fact American born, and this will be seen as a considerable slap in the face for the US, as one of their own is now one of their most deadly enemies.


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