Al Qaeda cleric's down, but his organization's not out: terror network still operating

Oct 1, 2011 Issues: Counterterrorism

NY Daily News – by Joseph Straw

WASHINGTON - Americans can sleep a little better now that Al Qaeda's top two English-language propagandists are dead.

Whether the deaths of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Web pamphleteer Samir Khan will speed the demise of an Al Qaeda that is down but not out remains to be seen.

Worldwide, the bodies of Al Qaeda brass are piling up: Osama Bin Laden, killed by U.S. Navy SEALS in May; Pakistani Ilyas Kashmiri, killed by a CIA drone in June; and No. 2 man Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who met the same fate last month.

The trend led incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to suggest in July that the defeat of core Al Qaeda - a handful of dead-enders holed up in the mountains of Pakistan - is within reach.

Jarret Brachman, an author and senior counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. government, said Panetta was right. Unfortunately the same is not true of Al Qaeda's Arab affiliate, he argued.

The Obama administration called al-Awlaki AQAP's "leader of external operations." That may be a stretch, Brachman said.

"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will still get up for work tomorrow morning," Brachman said. "Al-Awlaki was almost a separate wing,"

Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said core Al Qaeda and its affiliates are "under enormous stress."

Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the pressure can force mistakes.

Careless communication, for example, can help U.S. intelligence agencies pinpoint remaining targets, King said.

Mounting U.S. victories may spook and demoralize remaining Al Qaeda leaders, but they may also incite members and wanna-bes to seek revenge, Jones said.

If that happens, Brachman expects small, "low level" plots like those al-Awlaki was notorious for inspiring: the Fort Hood massacre and last year's failed plot to bomb Times Square.

Historically, Al Qaeda and its acolytes don't wait for new reasons to strike out at the West, said former U.S. counterterrorism official Rick (Ozzie) Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"They don't need an excuse to do it," Nelson said.