The drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who helped lead al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from its haven in Yemen, is far more than yet another killing of another senior terrorist leader. Certainly, it is, as President Barack Obama declared, “another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates.” But it is more than that too because Awlaki, more so than other al Qaeda leaders, posed an unusual danger to the U.S. homeland.
The al Qaeda core leadership based in Pakistan has been under siege from drone strikes for several years now, curtailing its ability to communicate and plan operations — a campaign to which the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden added a dramatic punctuation point. But the dwindling of the core organization has made its affiliates in the Maghreb, Iraq, and elsewhere even more important to the jihadi cause. Nowhere has that been truer than in Yemen, and indeed senior intelligence officials have warned recently that AQAP is becoming more dangerous than the al Qaeda core itself.
Awlaki was at the heart of this threat. U.S. officials linked him to the near-miss attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the 2010 plot to use explosives cunningly hidden in packages to down two cargo jets. Either of these attacks, had they succeeded, would have been blows to the U.S. homeland. Awlaki also had links to Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspected perpetrator of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that killed 13 people, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.