Americans woke up this morning to some news that will make them safer. Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed by a U.S. drone as he was traveling in a convoy in Yemen.
After Osama bin Laden, al-Awlaki was the most dangerous public al Qaeda leader. He had developed into the face of terror. He was American-born, English-speaking, and was very active in trying to recruit American jihadists to attack the U.S. homeland.
Law enforcement officials say al-Awlaki’s online attempts to snare jihadists in this country were very successful. As the chief of external operations for al Qaeda, al-Awlaki was instrumental in several attacks, including the Fort Hood massacre, the attempted Christmas Day underwear bombing, the thwarted Times Square bomb plot and the two printer cartridge bombs found on cargo planes flying over the U.S., as our ABC News colleagues Pierre Thomas and Brian Ross have reported.
At a press conference this morning, President Obama said al-Awlaki’s death “is a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.” He added that al-Awlaki took a lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans: men, women and children.
From my experience in the field, I do not believe that Anwar al-Awlaki’s death will cause any kind of uproar in the Arab and Muslim world. Having covered the Arab Spring uprisings and having talked constantly to people in that part of the world, I know first-hand that the al Qaeda philosophy — started by Osama bin Laden, and carried farther by Anwar al-Awlaki — is dying. Huge majorities in the Arab and Muslim world are rejecting violence and terror and trying to affect change and gain freedom through democratic means.
I’m also told that al Qaeda is having a significantly hard time fundraising and recruiting. With bin Laden and al-Awlaki dead, al Qaeda has lost its most charismatic leaders and public faces. A measure of how desperate al Qaeda has become is the bizarre public squabbling between the organization and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over just who conducted the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week, Ahmadinejad, once again, raised conspiracy theories, questioning whether al Qaeda actually did conduct the Sept. 11 attacks. Al Qaeda was quick to pounce and claim 9/11 for itself, mainly because its relevance to the jihad community depends on staging these kinds of world-changing events.
On a trip to Afghanistan, his first after becoming the new secretary of defense on July 1, Leon Panetta told reporters, “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda and I’m hoping to be able to focus on that, working, obviously, with my prior agency as well.”
President Obama’s aggressive drone strategy has been successful. The real question now with al Qaeda on the run is how to defeat, or negotiate peace with, the Taliban. They are still strong in Afghanistan, killing U.S. and NATO forces, staging bold attacks in the heart of the capital Kabul, slaughtering Afghan civilians. They are supported by a network of militants, mainly the Haqqanis, in safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, caused an uproar last week after calling out Pakistan, saying that the country is “exporting violence,” and using extremists as proxies in Afghanistan. Ending this is of the utmost urgency if the U.S. wants a safe and orderly exit from Afghanistan. Otherwise, it will find itself in a dangerous retreat in the midst of an insurgency.