Middle East

Awlaki in sights of US counter-terrorism for months

Anwar al-Awlaki
Image caption Anwar al-Awlaki used email and social media to encourage attacks on the West

Anwar al-Awlaki - who was killed by a US strike in Yemen - had been in the sights of the US for many months.

His elimination will be seen as a major victory for the US counter-terrorism campaign - and for the new CIA director David Petraeus.

His killing will contribute to a hope that al-Qaeda as a whole is facing some kind of "strategic defeat" in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, and the organisation's irrelevance in uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Awlaki's death will also rob Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of its most important voice but will not necessarily mark the end of the organisation.

AQAP is not believed by Western intelligence officials to be a large grouping in terms of numbers.

It was formed out of a merger of groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and is led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi.

Transformed role

Awlaki's involvement was born initially more out of proximity with AQAP than a formal relationship.

He appears to have been offered protection by the group, leading to a closer relationship with its key members.

In turn he helped transform AQAP's prominence and role. Crucially, Awlaki helped internationalise its ambitions.

Without him, the group would most likely have continued to focus on its struggle in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

But Awlaki's presence in Yemen provided a totally new access point to young people in the West.

Awlaki managed to both inspire some people and have a direct operational relationship with others.

Social media

Image caption A diagram of the car bomb left at Times Square, New York

In the past, al-Qaeda affiliates would have achieved reach into the West typically through diasporas and personal ties. But Awlaki provided it through the new means of modern communications - email and social media.

For instance, he gave the Fort Hood gunman, Maj Nidal Hasan, advice by email.

Meanwhile, his teachings are believed to have influenced Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed MP Stephen Timms in the UK in May last year - although here there is less evidence of direct contact with the attackers.

Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square - also in May 2010 - was said to be inspired by Awlaki.

Former British Airways staff member Rajib Karim - convicted earlier this year in the UK for plotting to blow up a plane - was in touch with Awlaki directly by email.

This was all part of a wider trend in which al-Qaeda, as a whole, seemed unable to carry out attacks on the scale of of 9/11.

So instead, it focused on trying to encourage individuals in the West to go it alone and carry out their own attacks - sometimes with training and direction, and sometimes entirely independently.

Awlaki's presence on a US kill-or-capture list generated some concern among human rights groups in America because he was a US citizen, having been born in New Mexico.

The fact he had spent time in the US and also the UK gave him an understanding of how to engage people in a manner that figures like Osama bin Laden, as well as his deputy and now al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, lacked.

Skilled bombmakers

Image caption The printer bomb included a circuit linked to a mobile phone card

Awlaki's propagandist reach was combined with at least one skilled bombmaker - and many more - in Yemen.

That combination made the situation of particular concern by drawing together recruitment, radicalisation and the delivery of capability.

Awlaki was able to offer people and ideas, while the bombmakers were able to built the sort of devices such as the so-called "underpants" bomb targeting a plane to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.

The bomber, Umar Farouk Abdullmutallab, was also believed to have met Awlaki directly.

The bombmaker was also behind the attempt to hide a device in printer cartridges heading to the US on freight planes.

The latter were only discovered thanks to a tip-off and were described by Western counter-terrorism experts as the most sophisticated devices they seen.

Awlaki may now be gone, and in many ways is irreplaceable, but the bombmakers remain and will still be of concern.

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