On Friday, 30 September, Yemen announced that a Hellfire missile fired from
a CIA-operated drone had killed Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaqi, in the north of the
country. His grief-stricken father, once a minister of agriculture in a
Yemeni government, went to the scene to collect and bury the pieces of what
remained of Anwar's body. It was the seventh U.S. strike in Yemen this year.
Anwar al-Awlaqi was a virulent critic of American foreign policy in the Arab
world, and a passionate advocate of al-Qaida's form of Islamic jihad. He was
also a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico, with an engineering degree from
Colorado State University. His internet sermons, delivered in fluent
English, had a devoted following, especially among young Muslims in the
His killing inevitably aroused a storm of controversy in the United States
about its legality. In an article in The National Interest, Paul R. Pillar,
a former senior CIA officer now a university professor, described it as
"essentially a long-range execution without judge, jury or publicly
presented evidence." This is a subject which must be left to the Americans
What are its probable consequences? The most obvious is that it is likely
further to inflame some Muslims against the United States, drawing fresh
recruits into the jihadist struggle. "Why kill him in this brutal, ugly
way?" a member of his Awalik tribe was quoted as saying. "Killing him will
not solve the Americans' problem with al-Qaida. It will just increase its
strength and sympathy in this region."
A key question, therefore, is whether al-Qaida -- including its Yemen-based
offshoot, "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" -- is an organisation or a
cause. If it is an organisation, killing its leaders must eventually drive
it out of business. But if it is a cause, assassinations may have the
contrary effect. A 'martyred' Awlaqi may prove a more effective recruiting
sergeant than he was alive. A young American Muslim cleric, Yasir Qadhi,
wrote in the International Herald Tribune on October 3 that "Killing people
does not make their ideas go away."
Awlaqi's killing has inevitably been compared to that of Osama Bin Laden,
shot down last May in his home in Pakistan by a hit-team of U.S. Special
Forces. The clandestine mission was seen by many Pakistanis as an
intolerable infringement of their country's sovereignty. The assassination
precipitated a grave crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations. It played into the
hands of hard-liners in the Pakistani army and military intelligence
service, no doubt causing them to tighten still further their links with
jihadi groups, such as the Haqqani network. America's 10-year war against
the Taliban in Afghanistan will thus have been made more perilous and any
outcome favourable to the United States more uncertain than ever.
In much the same way as he cheered Bin Laden's death, U.S. President Barack
Obama has hailed Awlaqi's murder as a major blow to al-Qaida. Many Muslims,
however, will see the killing as further evidence that the American
President, much like his belligerent predecessor George Bush, is at war with
Islam. His slavish support for Israel as it seizes Palestinian land and
denies statehood to the Palestinians has aroused great anger. His standing
is already close to rock-bottom in the Arab and Muslim world. The killing of
Awlaqi will drive another nail in the coffin of what little remains of his
In an ironic twist of fortune, Dick Cheney, Bush's war-mongering Defence
Secretary, said last weekend that Obama should apologise to Bush for
criticising the 'enhanced interrogation techniques' -- such as
water-boarding -- inflicted on al-Qaida suspects, since Obama was himself
now resorting to even more robust methods!
The United States is deeply unpopular in Yemen. The divide can be traced to
the American-sponsored war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
It will be recalled that, with the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the
United States recruited, trained and armed tens of thousands of young
Muslims from several Arab countries to fight the 'godless' Russians in
Afghanistan. Some 25,000 of these mujahidin -- volunteer fighters in the
cause of Islam -- came from Yemen alone. Many thousands more came from
Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere.
But when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the United States
callously dropped the mujahidin. Funding for them dried up. A number of
these battle-hardened and radicalised 'Afghan Arabs' joined Bin Laden's
al-Qaida. Thousands made their way home to Yemen, where they were treated as
heroes -- at least at first. Some were given jobs in the civil service and
A year later, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. To dislodge him, the
U.S. dispatched half a million men to Saudi Arabia in what was to become the
First Gulf War. Since Yemen had long had close ties with Saddam's Iraq,
President Ali Abdallah Salih refused to join the American-led coalition.
Instead, he advocated an "Arab solution" to the Kuwait crisis. This angered
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States who saw Saddam as a dangerous bully who had
to be cut down to size -- a task they believed only the United States could
Saudi Arabia's response to Ali Abdallah Salih's pro-Iraqi policies was to
expel close to a million Yemeni migrant workers. Their return home deprived
Yemen of indispensable remittances and added to already severe unemployment.
Yemen became a failing state. This was the beginning of a long dispute
between Yemen and Saudi Arabia -- and also of a battle between jihadists and
the United States, which continues to this day.
At first, the 'Afghan Arabs' were useful to Yemen's President as he battled
former Marxists in South Yemen. But when the jihadists started attacking
American targets, they got him into trouble with the United States The
former heroes became terrorists.
In December 1992, jihadists bombed the Goldmur Hotel in Aden where U.S.
military personnel were staying. In June 1996 they bombed the Khubar Towers
in the eastern Saudi town of Dhahran, killing 19 American soldiers. In
August 1998, they attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In October
2,000, they blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in Aden harbour killing
17 U.S. sailors. In November 2002, a missile from a CIA-operated drone
killed Shaykh Salim al-Harithi, one of the men involved in the Cole bombing.
By this time, the exploits of these local jihadis had been overshadowed by
the devastating assault mounted by their mother organisation on the U.S.
heartland -- the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.The U.S. wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq followed.
Meanwhile, the bitter struggle continues in Yemen, a country now on the
verge of collapse. U.S. Special Forces are being sucked further into what
looks increasingly like a civil war. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaqi must be
seen in this context.
But is it not obvious that external force is a blunt instrument in dealing
with what is essentially an internal Yemeni contest? Is it not time for
Washington to rethink its policy towards the Arab and Muslim world -- as the
unfortunate Obama had indeed intended to do, before he was defeated by
America's gung-ho militarists, rabid conservatives, pro-Israeli lobbyists
and other assorted Islam-haters?
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest
book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of
the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright C 2011 Patrick Seale
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Received on Fri Oct 07 2011 - 17:06:58 EDT