Early last week, as a federal court in Washington was hearing arguments over the Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing of an American linked to Al Qaeda, the man at the center of the case was having his own say. The same day, Nov. 8, Anwar al-Awlaki appeared in a 23-minute video that concluded: “Don’t consult anyone in killing Americans. Fighting Satan doesn’t require a religious ruling.”
The coincidental timing of the video added to the urgency of a case the judge has called “extraordinary and unique.” Unique, indeed. But in truth Mr. Awlaki is hardly significant in terms of American security. Contrary to what the Obama administration would have you believe, he has always been a minor figure in Al Qaeda, and making a big deal of him now is backfiring.
Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents in 1971, left the United States for good in 2002 before eventually settling in Yemen in 2004. He is believed to be hiding in the southern province of Shabwa, where his tribe, the Awaliq, holds sway.
The federal lawsuit, which is being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights at the request of Mr. Awlaki’s father, has set off a broader debate over whether the government should be allowed to assassinate an American in a country the United States is not at war with. The administration maintains that the president has sole authority over such strikes, while the other side is arguing that judicial review is required.
It’s a vexing legal question worthy of debate. But no one should remain under the mistaken assumption that killing Mr. Awlaki will somehow make us safer.
He is far from the terrorist kingpin that the West has made him out to be. In fact, he isn’t even the head of his own organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That would be Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary for four years in Afghanistan.
Nor is Mr. Awlaki the deputy commander, a position held by Said Ali al-Shihri, a former detainee at Guantánamo Bay who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and put in a “terrorist rehabilitation” program. (The treatment, clearly, did not take.)
Mr. Awlaki isn’t the group’s top religious scholar (Adil al-Abab), its chief of military operations (Qassim al-Raymi), its bomb maker (Ibrahim Hassan Asiri) or even its leading ideologue (Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaysh).
Rather, he is a midlevel religious functionary who happens to have American citizenship and speak English. This makes him a propaganda threat, but not one whose elimination would do anything to limit the reach of the Qaeda branch.
He’s not even particularly good at what he does: Mr. Awlaki is a decidedly unoriginal thinker in Arabic and isn’t that well known in Yemen. His most famous production is a lengthy sermon-lecture series called “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” which emphasizes the global nature of holy war: “If a particular people or nation is classified as … ‘the people of war’ in the Shariah, that classification applies to them all over the earth.” But “Constants” isn’t really his own creation; it’s an adaptation of a work written by a Saudi militant killed in 2003. At most, Mr. Awlaki is a popularizer, someone who takes the work of others and makes it his own.
When he preached in the United States, first in San Diego and then in Virginia, he exploited his knowledge of Arabic and his Yemeni heritage to burnish his credentials as a genuine Islamic voice. He has been linked to Maj. Nidal Hassan, the psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at a Texas Army base in 2009, and some of the 9/11 hijackers attended his services. But until the Obama administration put him on its hit list, he had little standing in the Arab world.
Now, however, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is taking advantage of this free advertising. No propaganda from the group had ever mentioned his name before it was reported in January that the United States had decided he could be legally assassinated. Shortly after, an article in the official Qaeda journal trumpeted that Mr. Awlaki had not been killed in December, as had been reported, in an air attack on a gathering in Shabwa Province.
So now that it has given Mr. Awlaki such a high profile, the administration is in a bind: if it ignores him, it will look powerless; if it succeeds in killing him, it will have manufactured a martyr. The best way out is to redouble its efforts to track down the real, more dangerous leaders of the Yemen group like Mr. Wuhayshi and Mr. Asiri, who likely made the bombs used in the parcel attacks and carried by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Christmas Day bomber.
Mr. Awlaki’s name may be the only one Americans know, but that doesn’t make him the most dangerous threat to our security.
Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton who writes the blog Waq al-Waq.