24 December 2009

Yemen Strike: Anwar al Awlaki EKIA?

Recent open-source reporting has discussed the possibility that Anwar al Awlaki, the radical cleric who was in e-mail contact with MAJ Nidal Hassan prior to his Ft. Hood shootings, was killed today in an airstrike in Shabwa province. For initial details, see Bill Roggio's post at the LWJ here.

In an article in today's Washington Post, it's reported that both US and Yemeni officials claim that Awlaki was EKIA along with two other prominent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders. The Yemeni Embassy in Washington reported that Awlaki was at a meeting of regional leaders along with Nasser al Wuhayshi (the regional head of AQAP) and Said Ali al Shihri (his deputy). According to reports from Saba News, the official media outlet of the Yemeni government, all three were at a meeting at the home of Awlaki (or one of his close relatives) to discuss responses to the 17 Dec combined raid and air strikes against an AQAP training camp in Sanaa and Abyan that resulted in 34x AQAP EKIA and 29x captured. For more on the 17 Dec strikes, see this great article in the LWJ.

However, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the three were at the meeting and who was actually killed in the strikes, which were carried out by the Yemeni Air Force. According to the Yemen Observer, the whereabouts of Awlaki and Shihri are unknown, and Wuhayshi is thought to have survived/escaped. Al Jazeera (English version here) is also reporting that local sources say Awlaki was not injured/killed in the attacks. The AJ story also provides an interesting sidenote to the complex story surrounding Awlaki, when an official in Yemen is quoted as saying that, "[Awlaki's] father is an adviser to the president of Yemen. If they really wanted him, they could phone him and tell him to come back to the capital and arrest him...I have serious doubts about him being a target - simply because he is well connected to the government and there is no serious case against him." Sounds about right for the Middle East...

Although initial reports are always sketchy and we might not know for sure for several days, I assess that Awlaki was not EKIA in this particular strike. There are several reasons for this: 1) The initial reports from the Yemen Observer say that the strike occured at Awlaki's home, but never say that he was actually present - in fact, in the WP article, Awlaki's father claims that he has actually been staying with an uncle who lives over 40 miles away for the last two months; 2) Awlaki is more well-known among Western audiences and jihadists and has little historic affiliation with top AQ-affiliated leaders like Wuhayshi and Shihri; 3) Awlaki is more of an "inspirational" figure (would likely fall under the sharia wing of the organization), while the others are more operational/military planners. While Awlaki might be consulted to bless off on a planned attach, these two groups are more likely to communicate via phone than to meet in person; 4) If the Al Jazeera report is true and Awlaki has some ties to the government, I doubt they would have launched the strike. As JD explained previously in his excellent post, the Yemeni government (led by Ali Abdullah Saleh) is playing both sides and has historically tolerated (and even supported) some AQ elements in the country.

The only way that I could see these three (and reportedly several other top AQAP leaders) being together in one location would be if the Dec 17 strikes (a combined US-Yemen effort driven by US intel) were so disruptive that they spread panic across the organization and forced the top members of the group to communicate via phone to set up a face-to-face meeting to assess the damage and plan the way forward. More likely, however, is that some folks within the Yemeni government got overexcited and reported false or exaggerated information to the media, which is now being propagated across the Western and Middle Eastern media outlets.

I hope the initial reports are true, but I doubt it.

1 comment:

  1. Pat,

    As much as I want to get excited over Nasser al Wuhayshi and Said Ali al Shihri possible removal from the AQAP network, I completely agree with you last statement.

    Nasser al Wuhayshi former jobs as OBL body guard and a major travel facilitator for AQ in Iran tells us two things; he is a diehard fanatical, and he understand operational security.

    Said Ali al Shihri probably understands American capabilities since he did a stint at Guantanamo Bay from 2001-2007.

    Looking at both of their resumes, one could conclude that there was no possible way both of them decided to hold a high level meeting, at Anwar al Awlaki residence.