Awlaki’s death highlights Yemeni president’s increasing irrelevance

If the killing of US-Yemeni jihadist Anwar al-Awla­ki high­lights the increas­ing mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Al Qae­da, it also weak­ens embat­tled Yemeni pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh’s effort to cling to pow­er despite six months of anti-gov­ern­ment protests that have brought his coun­try to the brink of civ­il war. 

Mr. Saleh, who returned to Yemen last week from three months of treat­ment of severe wounds he suf­fered dur­ing an attack in June on his pres­i­den­tial com­pound, has sought to por­tray him­self as the only obsta­cle to Al Qae­da grap­ping pow­er in the Red Sea geo-strate­gic coun­try strad­dling Red Sea. In recent inter­views, he has assert­ed that his depar­ture would bring the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and with it Al Qae­da to pow­er in Yemen. 

Mr. Awlaki’s death com­pounds the major body blows Al Qae­da has suf­fered in the past ten months with the killing in May by US Navy Seals of Al Qae­da leader Osama Bin Laden and the Arab revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

It also sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduces Mr. Saleh’s con­tro­ver­sial role in the fight against an increas­ing­ly weak­ened Al Qaeda. 

US diplo­mat­ic cables dis­closed by Wik­ileaks detail the president’s will­ing­ness to allow the US to con­duct a mil­i­tary cam­paign against Al Qae­da on its ter­ri­to­ry as long as he could main­tain plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty because of over­whelm­ing pub­lic oppo­si­tion to for­eign oper­a­tions on Yemeni territory. 

At the same time, the cables dis­cussed Mr. Saleh’s fail­ure to pro­vide agreed anti-ter­ror train­ing to Yemeni air­port offi­cials, per­mit­ting of car­go to pass through x‑ray machines unchecked and refusal to act on US sus­pi­cions that sev­er­al Yemeni Islam­ic insti­tu­tions were Al Qae­da recruit­ing grounds. 

Few doubt that Mr. Saleh has repeat­ed­ly manip­u­lat­ed the ter­ror­ist threat in Yemen and played both ends against the mid­dle to cur­ry US and Euro­pean favor. Pow­er­ful dis­si­dent mil­i­tary com­man­der Brigadier-Gen­er­al Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the head of the first armored brigade who defect­ed to the pro­test­ers in March, has gone as far as charg­ing that Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affil­i­tate to which Mr. Awla­ki belongs was a crea­ture of Mr. Saleh’s mak­ing to secure West­ern mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic support. 

From a US per­spec­tive, Al Qae­da has been weak­ened to a degree that it can risk Mr. Saleh being suc­ceed­ed by a gov­ern­ment that at worst would be as unre­li­able and duplic­it an ally as he was. 

The peace­ful mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests that top­pled Egypt­ian and Tunisian pres­i­dents Hos­ni Mubarak and Zine el Abe­dine Ben Ali, brought the auto­crat­ic regimes of Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad and Mr. Saleh to the brink of demise, and only mor­phed into a civ­il war in Libya after oust­ed Libyan leader Moam­mar Qaddafi employed his armed forces high­light the rejec­tion of Al Qaeda’s mil­i­tant Islam and indis­crim­i­nate vio­lence by a major­i­ty of Mid­dle East­ern­ers and North Africans. 

Mr. Awlaki’s death may well strength­en a grow­ing belief that Al Qae­da has been reduced to a local threat in the three areas where it still retains a pres­ence of any sig­nif­i­cance: Yemen with Al Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la (AQAP) that suf­fered a seri­ous blow with the depar­ture of the Yemeni-Amer­i­can cler­ic, Soma­lia where Al Qae­da affil­i­ate Al Shabab has been forced to sur­ren­der ter­ri­to­ry in recent months and Alge­ria where Al Qae­da in the Islam­ic Maghreb (AQIM) has large­ly lim­it­ed itself to harass­ing Alger­ian forces. 

Increas­ing­ly, west­ern coun­tert­er­ror­ism offi­cials and ana­lysts are com­ing to the con­clu­sion that the body blows dealt to Al Qae­da ren­der it inca­pable of launch­ing large scale, dra­mat­ic attacks of the kind it per­pe­trat­ed in the last decade such as the 9/11 tar­get­ing of the World Trade Tow­ers in New York and the Pen­ta­gon in Wash­ing­ton, the 2005 and 2007 attacks on pub­lic trans­port in Lon­don and Madrid and the bomb­ings of mul­ti­ple tar­gets in Casablan­ca, Amman and Sau­di Ara­bia. The attacks in Arab cities more­over played a key role in dimin­ish­ing Al Qaeda’s pub­lic appeal in much of the Mus­lim world. 

West­ern coun­tert­er­ror­ism offi­cials stop short of declar­ing vic­to­ry in their more than a decade-old fight against Al Qae­da. Yet, the orga­ni­za­tion they are fight­ing today is but a shad­ow of what it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks. 

Mr. Saleh’s inabil­i­ty to lever­age his coop­er­a­tion in the hunt­ing down of Mr. Awla­ki to reduce US, West­ern and Sau­di pres­sure for his res­ig­na­tion after 33 years in office was evi­dent with the Oba­ma administration’s reit­er­a­tion of its insis­tence that he step down in the same breath as acknowl­edg­ing his part in the death of the Yemeni-American. 

US and Euro­pean diplo­mats are nudg­ing Mr. Saleh behind closed doors to agree to a tran­si­tion plan under which he would step down with­in a max­i­mum of 30 days in exchange for immu­ni­ty from pros­e­cu­tion for him­self and mem­bers of his family. 

Mr. Saleh’s con­tri­bu­tion to the killing of Mr. Awla­ki may amount to lit­tle more than stand­ing aside and let­ting the US do the dirty work. In doing so, he may have high­light­ed his increas­ing irrel­e­vance rather than his impor­tance. Mr. Saleh’s suc­ces­sors will not need the per­cep­tion of a ter­ror­ist threat to secure inter­na­tion­al assis­tance in rebuild­ing their cri­sis-rid­den country. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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