By James Blitz in London and FT reporter in Sana’a
May 3 2011
As western intelligence agencies try to predict the most likely author of an attack to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, a jihadist cleric in Yemen can be expected to spring to mind.
Since the September 11 2001 attacks on the US, bin Laden has been associated most in the public mind with al-Qaeda and global jihad. But the US-born Mr Awlaki, 40, has been the brains behind some of the most high-profile terror plots of recent years.
Mr Awlaki, a leading figure in the group known as al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula , was the mastermind behind the attempted bombing of an aircraft over Detroit on Christmas day in 2009. He also organised the dispatch of parcel bombs concealed in cargo aircraft bound from Yemen to Chicago in October 2010.
Airline bombs are not his only stock in trade, however. He has become a highly effective internet preacher, grooming people in western states to carry out attacks.
Mr Awlaki’s online sermons radicalised a woman who attempted to murder Stephen Timms, a former British cabinet minister, in a knife attack in May 2010. Earlier this year, he emerged as the figure who had inspired a former British Airways employee to blow up an aircraft in an attack intended to kill hundreds of people.
“Mr Awlaki is certainly the figure you now have to watch,” says a security source. “His main target is the US. But if he can cause mayhem in Britain or other western states that would be fine by him, too.”
Certainly, Mr Awlaki is not the only figure of significance inside AQAP. The leader, or emir, of AQAP is Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who was a close personal aide to bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s. But Mr Wuhayshi is thought by security officials to be more focused on fomenting attacks on Saudi Arabia, while Mr Awlaki has maintained a more international focus.
Intelligence chiefs point out that Mr Awlaki has two key advantages in carrying out plots against the west. First, he has access to sophisticated bomb-making equipment that can be concealed easily and is difficult for airport scanners to detect.
“You have the impression that he is in charge of a very small cell of people who are trying to be as innovative as possible,” says a security source.
Second, as the embattled government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, draws towards its end, Yemen is a state in the throes of deep political turmoil.
President Saleh’s opponents have long argued that he has not challenged AQAP with sufficient vigour, partly because he has been battling other challenges to his rule.
Diplomats from western countries and the Gulf are also concerned that growing swathes of ungoverned territory in Yemen will give AQAP new freedom to carry out attacks. But frenetic attempts by the west to mediate a smooth transfer of power have thus far met with little success.
Security conditions are confusing and dangerous in the restive south of the country, where independent Islamist groups, secessionists and armed tribes live alongside tiny AQAP cells.
The death of bin Laden is unlikely to create much sadness among AQAP’s followers. “There is little in the way of direct communication between the organisation in Yemen and the one in Pakistan,” says Dr Murad al-Azzany, who studies Islamist groups at Sana’a University. “[Bin Laden’s] personality didn’t motivate them to carry out their activities.”
However, bin Laden’s death will still be a positive development for AQAP. The absence of an overall al-Qaeda leader might increase the importance of the organisation’s Yemeni wing by opening space for AQAP to exert further influence over the global movement – especially if that influence comes in the form of authorising a big attack.
Source: The Financial Times