The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki was believed to have been a major blow to the propaganda efforts of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. But when it comes to his death’s impact on the ability of the group to carry out attacks, the picture remains as cloudy as it was when Awlaki was killed nearly four months ago.
It has been more than a year since the disruption of the last known terrorist plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – an attempt to bring down two cargo jets over the United States with package bombs. It has more than two years since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, reportedly trained by AQAP, attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner.
What’s more, AQAP has been most active recently advancing its regional ambitions, not threatening attacks on U.S. soil.
Still, there are at least three key reasons to remain concerned about the persistent threat posed by AQAP, according to John McLaughlin, who was deputy CIA director from 2000 to 2004 and, briefly, the agency’s acting director.
The reasons, in short: speed, simplicity and strategy.
“Their operation that sent Abdulmutallab here in December of 2009 was something -- it was a pick-up game. It took about a month to get that thing going,” McLaughlin said Tuesday during an event on homeland security at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “They’re cheap: The package-bomb operation, by their own estimate, cost them about $4,200. And they have a strategy, which is a thousand cuts. So, basically, attack us where they can.”
There are also growing worries that AQAP is providing fighters and weaponry to other al-Qaeda affiliates, particularly al-Shabab in Somalia. Awlaki’s death has done little to allay those concerns, terrorism experts say, even though al-Shabab is still mainly regarded as a regional threat.
U.S. officials may have branded Awlaki as AQAP’s “chief of external operations” after his death. But McLaughlin said his loss has not “had a big impact on them operationally.”
The impact on AQAP’s propaganda efforts might be easier to measure. No one from AQAP’s ranks has been able to replace Awlaki as a messenger for the group. The last issue of the group’s online magazine, Inspire – believed to be largely the product of Samir Khan, the American killed alongside Awlaki in the U.S. drone strike – came out in September.
“I’m not sure how much AQAP will continue to be interested in a glitzy English-language Web journal,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and terrorism expert, told The Post back in October. “But it’s still going to be interested in attacking the United States.”