The death of Osama bin Laden, former chief of Al Qaeda, following CIA drone attacks in Abbotabad, Pakistan, in April this year came as a surprise to some but Anwar al-Awlaki's death along with a few other Al Qaeda leaders in the latest strike in Yemen was largely anticipated. Reports on US drone bases in African and Arabian peninsulas have already made headlines in newspapers across the world and with publication of their agenda the US had to strike fast before the terrorist groups could shift bases. The US and CIA led operation in Yemen has aroused debates and discussions on whether the US has the legal right to carry out drone attacks on foreign soils where it is not actively engaged in combat. Anwar-al Awlaki's death is even more controversial than bin Laden's as he was a US citizen.
Anwar al-Awlaki was the main recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) network, and worked closely with its propaganda wing, the Al-Malahem media, by circulating hate speeches against Americans through online video and other outlets. Following Osama Bin Laden's death, Anwar-al Awlaki became an increasingly influential figure within the Al-Qaeda affiliated networks. Being a US citizen he had the advantage of being able to appeal to young Muslims inside the US as well as abroad. His quiet and unassuming personality helped influence many attacks across the US including the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas day bombing attempt in 2009.
The demise of bin-Laden and al-Awlaki has prompted analysts to question who else hold the cards in the network? How strong is the organization now, since many of its top leaders have been arrested or killed? Not surprisingly, with training camps across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Iraq, in Tajikistan, and more recently in Africa, Al-Qaeda keeps recruiting young jihadists and the group continues to fill its vacant spaces with new and unknown faces. Undeniably, what the US needs is a long term strategy to tackle not just these new jihadists and the trainees at recruitment camps around the world, but also the Al-Qaeda ideology of jihad. The US will have to consider a long term strategy alongside the short term agenda of killing Al-Qaeda jihadists, as targeted killings may not realize desired results.
The US, however, considers Osama bin Laden's and Anwar al Awlaki's deaths as sufficient to make the remaining Al-Qaeda recruits nervous and unsure about the feasibility of the Al Qaeda mission. However the US is focusing only on short term plans, and the targeted killing of one or two terrorists does not kill an entire ideology. The problem could be made easier if training camps were to be specifically targeted. Yet Islamist radicalization takes place beyond the training camps - possibly within the community, in homes and in some extreme cases, inside mosques through hate speeches by radical Imams. In recent times, due to problems and limitations on travel faced by jihadist recruits, networks like the AQAP have taken up operational strategies that call upon local Muslim jihadists to create impact in their area. However, most Muslims are increasingly wary of associating with the Al-Qaeda, and according to recent intelligence reports, support for Al-Qaeda has dwindled to less than 5% of the population in Muslim countries.
Despite the fact that the Al-Qaeda leadership in the Arab peninsula and Africa sees significant opportunities in the Arab Spring, there is clearly a sense of undue optimism among supporters of the Al-Qaeda as far as the opportunities of the Arab Spring are concerned. Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt are fertile grounds of recruitment and training that could spread the Al-Qaeda ideology and the CIA operatives will have to remain especially vigilant in these areas. Yet considering that the Arab Spring has been more about a spirit of human freedom and a desire for democracy than about terrorism, implementation of the Al-Qaeda agenda in the region is unlikely. This said, there has to be constant counter-terrorism efforts and monitoring in all the regions of the Arab Spring, especially in Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Libya. These are typically the terrorist prone or 'vulnerable' zones, especially if any of these regions experience prolonged chaos and unrest before a stable government is formed.
The Al Qaeda headquarters for operations across these regions is based in Yemen and was under the leadership of Nasir-al-Wahayshi also known as Abu Basir (who was according to Yemeni officials killed in August this year). Anwar al Awlaki was also an important figure especially as a communicator, facilitator and a public speaker for the AQAP network. The recent US strikes on the AQAP suggest that the US has considered the possibility that Yemen could be used as a base for Al-Qaeda and AQAP recruits across the potential 'soft' transitional regions of the Arab Spring, including Syria, Libya and Egypt. On May 5th this year the US carried out air strikes during a major meeting of AQAP leaders at the al-Said district in Yemen, however the operation was not successful. Some of the main leaders of the Yemeni network of the Al Qaeda affiliate still in control, are Suleiman al-Rubaish, and Qasim al-Raymi (although there are unconfirmed reports of the latter's death).
The current head of the Al-Qaeda network, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced Osama-bin Laden after his death and operates from Egypt, has tried to associate Al-Qaeda ideology with the Arab uprisings, suggesting that the old regimes in the Middle East will now be replaced with Islamic rule, courtesy of the ideology of Al Qaeda. In one of his many recent video appearances, al-Zawahiri said "The …Arab uprising has liberated the Arab people from … fear and terror. ….has liberated thousands of the members of the Islamic movement's prisoners, who were imprisoned by direct orders from America."
This suggests that al-Zawahiri sees opportunity in the Middle East and he specifically mentioned Yemen in one of his videos making it clear that Yemen and Egypt will be the most immediate operating grounds for the group.
Al-Qaeda operatives may now be focusing on the chaotic yet politically fertile regions of Libya, and many Al-Qaeda supporters and trainees have actively participated in fighting the Gaddafi regime. 20000 missiles are missing from the former Libyan regime's weapons storage facility and there are reports that the affiliate members of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) have acquired some of these weapons. EU's counter terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, said in a statement that the AQIM has "gained access to weapons, either small arms or machine-guns, or certain surface-to-air missiles which are extremely dangerous because they pose a risk to flights over the territory" .
Jihadists have been using web forums to discuss strategies for establishing Islamist jihadist ideology in post Gaddafi Libya. One major concern is the increasing number of Libyans with militant backgrounds participating in the new government, and the Libyan Transitional Council (NTC) is already wary of a militant presence in Libya. The main anti-Gaddafi militant network is said to have some ties to the Al-Qaeda so a growing Al-Qaeda presence in Libya cannot be ruled out.
Al-Qaeda militants have also crossed over from Iraq to Syria to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad so they clearly remain the most active cross border fighters within the African-Arab regions. However the militants of Al-Qaeda groups and affiliates AQAP and AQIM have created new security concerns in the region with worries that they may try to merge or associate with the newly formed governments, instead of remaining jihadist outlaws. The US and the international community should be alert to this possibility.