With the release of a provocative new video to justify killings of American civilians, Yemen-based cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki seems on the verge of becoming the new Osama bin Laden—an avowed enemy terrorist who frustrates the best efforts of U.S. intelligence agencies to find him.
Two U.S. counterterrorism experts who have analyzed the video say it's significant in several respects. For one thing, it dramatically illustrates his growing importance to Al Qaeda as an international symbol of defiance to U.S. power. Never before had Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, whose media arm released the video this past weekend, so publicly embraced the U.S.-born cleric and portrayed him as a major player within its organization, according to the two experts. But more important, the 45-minute video underscores the U.S. government's ongoing failure to locate him.
Just this past December, Yemeni government officials announced that the Awlaki had been killed in a missile strike—only to be embarrassed a few days later when Awlaki spoke to a well-known Yemeni journalist, proclaiming himself to be at home and very much alive. Since then, Obama administration officials have repeatedly expressed determination to track down Awlaki, calling him the one American citizen whom U.S. intelligence agencies are authorized to kill on sight. But so far their efforts have come up empty—and as a result, Awlaki's star among Islamic radicals seems to be on the rise. "This is really playing into Al Qaeda's hands," says Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar who is among the world's foremost experts on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate calls itself. "This is the guy the entire U.S. government is looking for, and they can't find him. The Obama administration has essentially created him as this major enemy, and Al Qaeda is taking advantage of that."
U.S. officials say they have good reason to focus so much attention on Awlaki. After being vigorously investigated by the FBI years ago over his ties to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Awlaki has received renewed attention in recent months because of his e-mail exchanges with Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, as well as his suspected links with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight headed to Detroit on Christmas Day. Awlaki (whose command of the English language enables him to communicate to alienated English-speaking Muslims in ways that other radical clerics cannot) seemed to affirm his links with both men in the video, describing them as his "students" and saying of Hasan: "What he did was heroic and great...I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit."
But denouncing Awlaki is one thing, while actually hunting him down is another. Both Johnsen and Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. government consultant who tracks Awlaki, say the cleric is widely believed to be hiding in Yemen's southern Shabwa province—a remote mountainous area where he is thought to remain constantly on the move under the protection of native tribesman. "It's like you're trying to find a needle in a stack of needles," said Kohlmann. In the video released over the weekend, in which Awlaki spoke with Al Qaeda interviewers, the fugitive cleric made a vague reference to how difficult it had been for even his questioners to find him, Kohlmann says.
What's most ironic, according to Johnsen, is that Awlaki's operational importance within AQAP is far from clear. Although there's little question that the cleric was an inspirational figure for some radicalized Muslims even before last year's Fort Hood shooting, AQAP's public statements made no mention of Awlaki before last December—and there was no evidence that he played any direct role in plotting or orchestrating any attacks against America, Johnsen says. But after the missile strike that failed to kill Awlaki, AQAP began to see the propaganda value of playing up its ties to him. "The more the U.S. government has talked about him, the more his star rises on the international scene," says Johnsen.
That cycle continued over the weekend. Speaking on the CBS talk show Face the Nation, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reaffirmed the Obama administration's determination to get Awlaki. "We are actively trying to find him and many others throughout the world that seek to do our country and to do our interests great harm," Gibbs said. "The president will continue to take action directly at terrorists like Awlaki and keep our country safe from their murderous thugs." Awlaki, for his part, seemed only to taunt America more brazenly than ever more in the video. "As for the Americans, I will never surrender to them," he said. "If the Americans want me, let them come look for me. God is the protector."