On the Killing of Anwar al-Aulaki: Five Minutes with Elizabeth Arsenault

Interview by John Coumes (October 6th, 2011)

On 30 September 2011, the United States used an automated drone to kill Yemeni-American and prominent al- Qaida operative Anwar al-Aulaki in the Jawf province of Yemen. Al-Aulaki had leveraged his origins and internet savvy into a role as an extremely effective recruiter for al- Qaida and radical, violent Islam around the globe.  Georgetown University Professor Elizabeth Arsenault offered GJIA her perspective on al-Aulaki’s death.

GJIA: Did al-Aulaki’s American citizenship, along with his native English, make him particularly effective as a jihadist evangelist and recruiter?

EA: Al-Aulaki’s greatest strength was as a charismatic storyteller. What made his rhetoric particularly effective is that, as an American, al-Aulaki possessed an extraordinary ability to speak to U.S. audiences, using the symbols, language and rhetoric that would appeal to US citizens. As a powerful inspirational speaker, he could compel Americans to radicalism drawing upon both Qur`anic verse and Western idioms and analogies.

It was not just his command of English, by his virtue of being a dual US-Yemeni citizen, however, that fostered his ability to recruit and inspire potential followers. After all, Adam Gadahn—an American born and raised in Orange County—has also circulated English language al-Qa`ida propaganda for years. It was al-Aulaki’s personal charisma in communicating the obligation incumbent on all Muslims to take up arms against the West combined with elements that reflected his training in Islam that made him a tremendously effective propagandist.

GJIA: Did al-Aulaki’s perceived competence with regards to the internet and social media make him an irreplaceable asset?

EA: When President Obama described al-Aulaki’s death as a “major blow to al-Qaida,” some observers scorned this characterization as al-Aulaki did not contribute to the kinetic achievements of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He did not possess the jihadist credentials of Usama bin Laden, the operational capability and managerial skill of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or the veteran militant resume of Nasir al-Wahishi, one of the amirs of AQAP. His contribution to the group was not his technological or military expertise, but rather his communication skills to Westerners. All terrorists can be replaced. But AQAP faces a major hurdle in finding a substitute with his charisma, rhetorical skill and US citizenship.

GJIA: Several domestic terrorists have drawn inspiration and support from al-Aulaki; will his death have an effect on global terror?

EA: There may be a renewed interest in al-Aulaki’s sermons; however, it is actively debated the extent to which many Yemeni citizens even knew of al-Aulaki. It is too soon to assess what the lasting effects of his death are on both AQAP’s recruitment and instability in Yemen.

GJIA: What about al-Aulaki led the administration to select him for targeted killing despite his US citizenship?

EA: What was particularly repugnant about al-Aulaki was his desire to have Muslims in the West take up arms as articulated in his prolific preaching, captured on volumes of CDs. This influence over al-Qaida’s English language message—including through YouTube clips and through <em>Inspire</em> magazine, al-Qaida’s English-language webzine—was a dominant propaganda advantage for AQAP. In addition, many link his communication with suspected Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan and would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as instrumental in their decision to take up arms. Does it mark a new phase in the War on Terror? It perhaps signals that hate language represents as significant an operational benefit as financial capability and military prowess.

GJIA: Could the targeted killing of a civilian be authorized closer to home or within the borders of the United States?

EA: To call al-Aulaki a “civilian” detaches him from his role in a transnational terror organization that possesses both the capability and the willingness to attack the United States. AQAP has been named “probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland,” and Al-Aulaki was declared a “specially designated global terrorist” one year ago by the US government. Whether or not al-Aulaki was killed in Yemen or anywhere closer to home, there was a precedent for this measure to be found in the 1942 Supreme Court case, Ex Parte Quirin, in which Nazi saboteurs where captured in the United States. The Court held that, “Citizenship in the United States of an enemy belligerent does not relieve him from the consequences of a belligerency which is unlawful because in violation of the law of war.”

Professor Elizabeth Arsenault has worked for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the National Counterterrorism Center. She received her Master’s in Security Studies from George Washington University and her PhD in International Relations from Georgetown University.