by Kevin Johnson and Aamer Madhani on Sep. 30, 2011, under USA Today News
Anwar al-Awlaki’s value to al-Qaeda and the risk he posed to the United States was rooted less in the operational capability of the terror network and more in his role as a charismatic spokesman for a movement that was desperately trying to connect with disaffected Muslims in the West, terrorism analysts say.
With U.S. intelligence reports indicating that al-Qaeda’s ability to mount a major strike on U.S. soil has diminished, al-Awlaki’s role as al-Qaeda’s chief propagandist and recruiter raised his importance within an organization that was looking to recruit Muslims in the United States and Europe to take up their cause.
But now it’s unclear there’s anyone within al-Qaeda who can take his place.
“There aren’t any clear successors on the bench,” said Fred Burton, an analyst at the private intelligence firm STRATFOR.
Awlaki spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Yemen, but he was born in New Mexico and educated at Colorado State University. He not only spoke flawless English, but he also peppered his anti-American rhetoric on the Internet with pop culture references. During his years in the United States, he led mosques in Denver, San Diego and Northern Virginia, where he was regarded for both his piety and eloquence.
“Someone like Anwar al-Awlaki, who had a duality of cultural understanding, was the perfect weapon, the perfect tool to help perpetuate the al-Qaeda ideology in Western audiences,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a homeland security expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Al-Awlaki, in a sense, perpetuated Osama bin Laden’s vision for the al-Qaeda movement to become self-sustaining. He was creating franchises for the terror organization, helping al-Qaeda reach potential followers into the United States and the United Kingdom and also southeast Asian countries such as Singapore with large English-speaking Muslim populations, Nelson said.
The radical U.S. cleric’s skills were so “unique,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University, that his death, along with that of chief propaganda minister Samir Khan — another U.S. citizen — are losses that may be extremely difficult to replace within the weakened terror organization.
Johnsen said al-Awlaki, whose YouTube sermons attracted a dedicated global following, and Khan, the editor of al-Qaeda’s slick English-language Internet magazine known as Inspire, were enormously successful in encouraging so-called lone-wolf terrorists, who U.S. authorities said represented the greatest threat to the homeland.
Al-Awlaki alone is credited with inspiring a string of recent attacks and attempted assaults on the U.S., including the 2009 failed Christmas Day bombing of an airliner over Detroit, the 2010 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, and last year’s foiled plot to bomb cargo planes with explosives concealed in printer cartridges.
“I don’t know if there is anybody capable of filling those roles,” said terror analyst Evan Kohlmann. “Inspire magazine may be dead.”
The publication has served as al-Qaeda’s virtual newsletter, featuring sophisticated graphics and articles aimed at Western readers who are encouraged to take up arms on behalf of the terror group.
Kohlmann described Khan as “the genius” behind the publication that appealed directly to potential recruits with features ranging from bombmaking to where aspiring operatives could obtain weapons.
Al-Awlaki, meanwhile, served as the “iconic” mouthpiece, Kohlmann said, whose lectures registered in the West.
“He was someone who talked like us, was born here and carried an American passport,” Johnsen said. “His following outside of Yemen was greater than inside the country. “Is he someone who simply reinforced existing beliefs among his recruits or pushed them over the edge? I don’t think we really know that yet.”
Larry Johnson, a former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, said there are other terror operatives with ties to the U.S., including U.S. citizen Adam Gadahn, 33, and Adnan El-Shukrijumah, 36, an English-speaking Saudi national who was linked to a 2009 plot on the New York subway system.
El-Shukrijumah is considered dangerous on the operational level. But neither is believed to possess the same skills as al-Awlaki or Khan or the stature to fill the role as al-Qaeda’s figurehead.
“There is nobody with the type of visibility that Awlaki had,” Johnson said. “When you couple that with Samir Khan, well, it’s not like you have a second team ready to go.”
Gadahn, whom a U.S. court indicted in 2006 on charges of treason and who holds a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, has mostly stayed out of the limelight in recent months, Burton said.
In a video posted on a terror site in June, Gadahn urged Muslims in the West to take up arms in the “jihad against Zionists and the crusaders.”
Kohlmann said Gadahn’s occasional radical public pronouncements broadcast on the Internet have attracted a “dedicated following who are very extreme but not very bright.”
“Gadahn is not even close to al-Awlaki’s level,” Kohlmann said. “They are not playing the same sport. And neither (Gadahn or Shukrijumah) are as technically capable as Khan.”