How Will Cleric's Death Affect Al-Qaida Branch?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People in Western capitals are also waiting for al-Qaida to crack. Last month, when the Obama administration killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, they heralded a fatal drone attack as a great success for counterterrorism. But there are increasing questions about whether his death will have any real impact on the al-Qaida affiliate to which he belonged. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On September 30, U.S. forces targeted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American with Yemeni roots, as he was traveling in a convoy through a mountainous area of eastern Yemen. Awlaki had been on the U.S. capture or kill list for more than a year. Intelligence officials deemed he was working with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, one of the deadliest al-Qaida affiliates. Awlaki was a high-profile figure, an influential orator who American officials say had become more involved in the operational side of AQAP. Still, it's unlikely his death will have a major impact on the group's operations, says Jenna Jordan with the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. She's studied about 300 cases of targeted operations against terrorist leaders.
JENNA JORDAN: What I found is that certain types of organizations tend to be very resilient to having their leaders removed, so, large organizations, particularly older organizations, certain types of organizations. So religious groups and separatist groups tend to be the most resilient, with religious groups really being the most resilient.
NORTHAM: Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, an instructor in the Social Sciences department at West Point, says there is a lot of debate within the terrorism studies field over the so-called decapitation strategy, which says if you remove the leader, the group will collapse. Koehler-Derrick edited a year-long study looking at AQAP and Yemen by the military academy's Center for Combating Terrorism. He says the decapitation strategy applies in Yemen, because the leadership of AQAP is critical to the group's survival.
GABRIEL KOEHLER-DERRICK: We identified AQAP's Yemeni leadership specifically in the report as source of resiliency for the organization. In our estimation, it's really these local leaders who have kept the group from making broader strategic mistakes and avoiding the pitfalls that have proved the undoing of so many other al-Qaida affiliates. So we do place special emphasis on the role of the group's leadership.
NORTHAM: The leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is Nasir al-Wahayshi, a Yemeni national who's believed to have once served as secretary to Osama bin Laden. The Combating Terrorism Center's report on Yemen and AQAP says al-Wahayshi and his deputy, Abdullah al-Rimi, maintain rigid organizational discipline, and keep up a strong drumbeat against America and the Yemeni government. But Koehler-Derrick says while AQAP's leadership is its strength, it may also be its biggest weakness because it would be hard to replace.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is believed that Abdullah al-Rami has been killed and that his brother, Qasim a-Rami, has replaced him as Nasir al-Wahayshi's deputy.]
KOEHLER-DERRICK: There may be somebody else who steps up and is as capable as them. But it seems highly unlikely that they would find somebody of the quality of al-Wahayshi and al-Rimi on such short notice.
NORTHAM: Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says while al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is still capable and determined to launch attacks against the U.S., it's under intense pressure now.
CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: That's because the Americans are putting a lot of pressure on Yemen, the AQAP. The Yemenis are being much more proactive. They're being more active in fighting terrorism, and I think the group is feeling the strain and the pressure. And knowing that the Americans can reach out and do these kind of operations has to strike fear into some of these operatives.
NORTHAM: But Boucek warns there is so much that terrorism watchers don't know, because it's difficult to get intelligence from the remote areas of Yemen, where AQAP is based. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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Correction Oct. 14, 2011
In this story, we identified Nasir al-Wahayshi's deputy as Abdullah al-Rami. It is believed that Abdullah al-Rami has been killed and that his brother, Qasim a-Rami, has replaced him.