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Anwar al-Awlaki joins the ever-growing list of al-Qaeda leaders who have finally achieved the martyrdom to which they aspired. Precise details of his death have yet to be released, but it is almost certain that it was a U.S. missile or drone strike. Yemen CT forces are unlikely to have the capacity for such an operation. The recent killings of Osama bin Laden, Atiyah abdul Rahman and Awlaki have helped decapitate AQ operationally. Remaining leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi must be sleeping rather nervously tonight.
Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was not the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (bin Laden personally quashed a move to have him installed), but was by far the most visible presence. While he did not have jihadist credentials forged in combat, the fact that he spoke English in a reasonably eloquent manner was a great recruitment tool for al-Qaeda. His appeal to a segment of western Muslim opinion is well-known – just ask Major Nidal Hasan, Roshonara Choudhry orUmar Farouk Abdulmutallab. By January 2010, he was deemed such a threat that President Obama had authorised his assassination.
It also worth remembering that Awlaki was formerly quite the popular figure in the UK. Supposedly respectable institutions and organisations gave him platforms – such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in 2003 (who called him a ‘distinguished guest’) and East London Mosque in 2009. I hope the US government bears this in mind next time it sends its ambassador to the UK there to talk about his ‘great admiration’ for the mosque.