AQAP image of Anwar al Awlaki. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed that Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike last month, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. In a statement released to online jihadist forums, AQAP also confirmed the killing of Samir Khan, who edited AQAP’s online English publication, Inspire.
AQAP’s martyrdom statement references the public debate in the US over the legality of killing Awlaki and Khan, both of whom were American citizens. AQAP says the US government “did not prove the accusation against them, and did not present evidence against them in their unjust laws of their freedom.”
The statement, according to a translation provided by SITE, continues: “Where are what they keep talking about regarding freedom, justice, human rights and respect of freedoms?! Was America fed up with it to the point that it contradicted it – and every day it contradicts – these principles that it claims its state is based upon?!”
Ironically, AQAP’s own martyrdom statement confirms Awlaki’s and Khan’s roles in the organization, as the terror group does not issue such statements for just anyone. Moreover, AQAP refers to Awlaki as the “mujahid heroic sheikh.”
There is another layer of irony in AQAP’s attempt to play up the American legal debate as well. In an issue of Khan’s Inspire magazine published last year, Awlaki railed against Western laws and “civil states.”
Awlaki’s piece was written in response to “The New Mardin Declaration,” which was published by Islamic scholars in March 2010. The moderate scholars called on Muslims, Christians, and Jews to live in peaceful coexistence in the modern, Western nation state.
For Awlaki, this was simply unacceptable because it means that Muslims would have to accept Western law.
“At a time when American expenditure on its army is anything but decreasing, these scholars are asking us to give up any form of resistance and live as law – Western law that is – abiding citizens,” Awlaki sneered. The al Qaeda cleric continued: “They are asking us to live as sheep, as pleasantly as a flock of tame, peaceful, and obedient sheep. One billion and a quarter Muslims with no say on the world stage, stripped from their right to live as Muslims under the law of Islam, directly and indirectly occupied by the West, are asked to live as sheep. Is that the role of scholars?”
AQAP describes Awlaki as the “preaching sheikh.” Critics of the drone strike on Awlaki have claimed that he was merely a radical preacher with no operational role in al Qaeda’s terrorism. However, emails released during the trial of a convicted al Qaeda recruit show that Awlaki played a direct role in orchestrating terrorist plots. [See LWJ report, Awlaki’s emails to terror plotter show operational role.]
For example, Awlaki explained in one email to Rajib Karim, who was plotting a “spectacular” attack on airliners, that AQAP’s “highest priority is the US.” Awlaki continued: “Anything there, even if on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?”
Other emails showed that Awlaki explored granular details of the plot, including airport and airline security, with Karim.
The Obama administration has also alleged that Awlaki played a direct role in Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day 2009 terror plot, as well as other AQAP plots and terrorist operations.
In court filings last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that Awlaki was not just a spiritual advisor for Abdulmutallab. Shortly after Abdulmutallab swore allegiance to the emir of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, he “received instructions from [Awlaki]…to detonate an explosive device aboard a US airplane over US airspace.” Awlaki was directly involved in “preparing” Abdulmutallab for the Christmas Day 2009 operation, according to Clapper.
In a 2010 press release, Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the US Treasury Department, said that Awlaki “has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism — fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.”
In designating Awlaki an al Qaeda, the Treasury Department noted that he had “taken on an increasingly operational role” in AQAP since late 2009. [See LWJ report, US adds Anwar al Awlaki to list of designated terrorists.]
Awlaki also inspired numerous terrorist plots in which he apparently played no operational role. For instance, Major Nidal Malik Hasan corresponded with Awlaki repeatedly in the months leading up to the Nov. 5, 2009 Fort Hood shooting. Afterward, Awlaki referred to Hasan as one of his “students.”
A Congressional Joint Inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks also found that Awlaki was a “spiritual advisor” for at least two of the hijackers.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.