July 19, 2010

Ignoring the Enemy: Anwar al-Awlaki

No way he would stay silent - it’s his job to talk. Three days after America froze every asset of his that it could find, al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki unleashed a sermon on US President Barack Obama predicting his downfall. al-Awlaki is no ordinary cleric though. He may be “committed to carrying out deadly attacks on Americans and others worldwide,” and “involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism,” but he also performs even more dangerous work: truth telling.

"America refuses to admit that its foreign policies are the reason behind a man like Nidal Hassan, born and raised in the US, turning his guns against American soldiers," said al-Awlaki of the Ft. Hood shootings.

Stifling a lunatic cleric is relatively easy for the US government compared to the cerebral al-Awlaki, who mixes sparing bomb threats with a large dose of self-reflection. This isn’t his first time warning America of its own sinking foreign policy in the Gulf and West Asia, for al-Awlaki realizes this track is far more penetrating than standard jihadism.

"Oh Obama, whether you admit it or not, Muslims have defeated you in Afghanistan and in Iraq and you will be defeated in Palestine, Somalia and the Arab Megrab," he said, referring to Islamic countries in northern Africa. "You will not be defeated militarily and economically but most important you will be defeated morally."

Now this isn’t completely accurate; the economic underpinning of al-Qaeda’s grand strategy is the only thing holding it together. America can survive as powerful and evil, just not broke. Conversely, the only way al-Qaeda remains in the war is by exhausting the West’s resources. al-Awlaki, playing his usual games, is fully aware.

"If George W. Bush is remembered as being the president who got America stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he predicts, “it's looking like Obama wants to be remembered as the president who got America stuck in Yemen.”

Obviously al-Awlaki would love to lure America deeper into Yemen and contribute to burning US assets. We’ve theorized numerous times that he’s actively baiting America into Yemen, this case being no different. One must seriously consider whether al-Awlaki, indispensable as he is to al-Qaeda, has prepared to sacrifice himself to start a war.

But he also raises a series of critical questions: is Afghanistan truly the epicenter of al-Qaeda? Has it moved to Yemen or Somalia, or has it always been relatively dispersed? Will defeating al-Qaeda permanently require Afghanistan-style intervention in Yemen and Somalia? Can al-Qaeda shift to new conflicts by the time a real US strategy arrives and will the US continue following? How long will this endless war last and how much will it cost?

al-Awlaki believes Washington is avoiding these questions - not that he cares - as do many Americans.

Trying to display its knowledge, the White House instead reveals the hole in its strategy: “President Obama supported a comprehensive and inclusive Yemeni national dialogue on economic, political, and human rights issues. They also discussed the continuing threat of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and international assistance to Yemen to support its counter-terrorism efforts.”

Though Obama supports a “comprehensive” strategy, theoretically a counterinsurgency, he’s only funding counter-terrorism at about $200 million annually, wholly insufficient for the task. The same decision has already boosted Somalia’s instability.

With Somalia and Yemen flaring up as they are, concluding that counter-terrorism will suffice when they host more al-Qaeda agents than Afghanistan and are similarly undeveloped is wishful thinking. Somalia and Yemen require counterinsurgency just like Afghanistan but receive a decimal fraction of the support, around $300-400 million in US aid (mostly military). Afghanistan or Iraq-level counterinsurgency throughout al-Qaeda’s lairs would cost upwards of $3-4 trillion, an extraordinary discrepancy in funds.

And, as the Taliban demonstrates, al-Qaeda’s potential defeat still leaves numerous insurgencies to suppress. Decoupled as they may become, survival will be easy if the states they inhabit don’t improve their standard of living. Washington tries to ignore this reality too.

Yet, as al-Awlaki observes, Washington shows every indication of digging deeper into Yemen. Selecting counter-terrorism over counterinsurgency ensured that Yemen’s latest contact with America began in flames. An airstrike supposedly aimed at al-Awlaki in December 2009 missed its target, resulting in high civilian casualties. Another airstrike on an al-Qaeda operative in May 2010 killed a provincial deputy. Infrequent as they are, there’s no reason to expect a stoppage when they’re touted as Obama’s commitment to destroying al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile Inspire, a new color magazine published by Yemen’s local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is receiving more attention from the US government than potential recruits and jihadist websites.

“It is rather ironic that a publication that was deemed so important by the U.S. intelligence community that it was shown to President Obama as part of a national security briefing has fallen so flat with the people it sought as an audience,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a senior fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

Hegghammer says Inspire magazine's poor debut isn't necessarily AQAP's fault, claiming the jihadist media world is a harsh environment to operate in. The magazine was immediately corrupted when AQAP first posted it online, either by al-Qaeda’s own ignorance or “US government hackers.” But hyping the magazine was surely intentional, not ironic, pushing US attention towards Yemen to justify expanding military operations while trying to block potential recruits to al-Qaeda.

A clever move in one way, but one of many that draws America deeper into Yemen. By 2012 it’s possible that Obama will remain heavily invested in Afghanistan, knee deep in Yemen, and absent from what seems to be al-Qaeda’s future HQ in Somalia. al-Awlaki’s own trickery is fully revealed - baiting America away from Mogadishu and into Sana'a.

Although he would prefer Washington to intervene in both at once, a possibility that America may not be able to avoid forever.

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