Don't Assassinate the Dangerous Cleric al-Awlaki

Imam Anwar al-Awlaki at the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Va., on Sept. 21, 2001. Dennis Brack / Landov

As the lawyers and judge who will try Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab move this week to outline the contours of his hearing, the Obama administration is trying to prevent a repeat attack. The White House announced last week that the CIA will try to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda-linked American citizen living in Yemen who tutored Abdulmutallab. Awlaki will be hard to find—he is currently hiding in southern Yemen, protected by his powerful tribe—but if a drone operator has a shot, he will take it.

The rationale here seems self-evident. First, Awlaki has already been linked to two recent attacks in the U.S.: Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing and also the Fort Hood rampage, where Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree at his home base, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others. (Hasan was advised over the Internet by Awlaki.) Second, Awlaki's ability to speak English and recruit Westernized Muslims poses a continuing threat: just last month, he called on Muslims living in the United States to carry out similar strikes in the coming months. Eliminating him now, the White House claims, will do much to prevent a third attack. And third, the optics are great: Obama is a president who has promised to bring the fight to Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the administration's argument is based more on frustration and assumption than real strategy. Killing Awlaki will do little to disrupt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Inside that organization, he is a nobody—at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch. There are dozens of men who could do more harm to the United States, and killing Awlaki would only embolden them and aid in recruitment. For an organization as resilient and adaptive as AQAP, his death would be a minor irritant, not a debilitating blow. The futility of such a strike should give Obama pause before he greenlights the assassination of a fellow citizen.

To begin with, it is not even known for certain that Awlaki is a member of Al Qaeda. Certainly there are suspicions, and his published statements and interviews clearly support Al Qaeda, but the organization has never acknowledged him. His name has been mentioned exactly once in 12 issues of Sada al-Malahim ("The Echo of Battles"), the organization's bimonthly journal. And even that citation was hardly an endorsement: it merely disputed recent claims that Awlaki had been killed in a joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrike. He has never written an article, released an audiotape, or starred in a video for the organization. Each of these is an integral part of the group's propaganda outreach that senior AQAP leaders have done multiple times.

What's more, there is no evidence to suggest Awlaki is on AQAP's legal council, an internal group that both provides the religious justification for attacks and guides the future direction of the organization. Nor is there even a hint that he plays anything resembling a leading role in the group.

Even his links to the two attacks are more speculative and assumed than concrete. Awlaki is known to have exchanged e-mails with Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter (he confirmed as much to Al-Jazeera), and to being in contact with Abdulmutallab, whom he called his "student." (Abdulmutallab is thought to have attended one of Awlaki's sermons in London.) But he never acknowledged meeting either man.

Moreover, Awlaki doesn't even crack the list of the top 10 most dangerous suspects in Al Qaeda's Yemen chapter—let alone worldwide. Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP's military commander, is the single most dangerous individual in the organization, responsible for masterminding numerous suicide attacks. In addition to him, there are handfuls of other operatives who are demonstrably deadlier than Awlaki. Men like Nasser al-Wahayshi, the commander of AQAP, or former Guantánamo Bay detainees like Said Ali al-Shihri and Ibrahim al-Rubaish, all of whom are much more important to the organization's future. Others, like Adil al-Abab, a Yemeni religious figure, play a much larger role in attracting and recruiting would-be suicide bombers. Meanwhile, the face of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is an American, Adam Gadahn (also known as Azzam the American), and there is no standing order for his execution—at least no declaratory position.

Simply put, there is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP. The group is too strong, too numerous, and too entrenched to be destroyed by a CIA drone attack. Assassinating Awlaki may make us feel safer, but it won't make us be safer.

In fact, this has been done before to little effect. In November 2002, a CIA drone killed Kamal Darwish, a Qaeda suspect with joint U.S.-Yemeni citizenship. Darwish was killed because he was riding in a car with Abu Ali al-Harithi, a man one U.S. diplomat at the time called "the godfather of Al Qaeda in Yemen." Ultimately, their deaths meant little. Al Qaeda was hobbled for a while but eventually resurrected itself stronger and more durable than its previous incarnation.

A repeat performance aimed at Awlaki might actually be counterproductive, doing more to help Al Qaeda than harm it. Over the weekend, Awlaki's tribe, the al-Awaliq, warned Washington not to harm a hair on his head, saying that they were like the fires of hell: "Whoever enters will be burned." Already the United States has helped Al Qaeda's recruitment in Yemen by leading a Dec. 17 airstrike in Shabwa—the same governorate where Awlaki is hiding—which killed scores of civilians, a point hammered home by the organization in a recent audiotape.

To Americans working in counterterrorism, Awlaki is the public face of AQAP and the mastermind of the Christmas Day plot. He has become the representative of a frustratingly elusive enemy. He is what we know. But he is not all there is.

There is, without a doubt, reason to believe that Awlaki's fluent and idiomatic command of English can attract and inspire the kind of people who can bypass security restrictions in the West because of their passports. That is, perhaps, the greatest argument for silencing him. But the answer is much simpler than a potentially illegal assassination. The U.S. government has incredibly sophisticated cyberespionage tools at its disposal; it should DNS-bomb his Web sites, shut down his e-mail, and generally harass him online to keep him quiet and on the run. A hellfire missile is hardly the only option.

Our knowledge about AQAP is far from perfect, but over the past few years we have learned who matters to the organization's survival and who doesn't. Anwar al-Awlaki is among the latter.