WASHINGTON -- The killing of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen has brought cheers from lawmakers and terrorism experts, but it remains an open question whether his demise will make the United States safer from future terrorist attacks.
"This is huge," said Jane Harman, a former chair of the House homeland security subcommittee on intelligence who now heads a foreign policy think tank. "He was terrorist number one" in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing by U.S. Navy SEALS in May. "Awlaki had more ability to inspire and train U.S. homegrown terrorists than anyone else."
Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said the elimination of the Internet imam, whose greatest influence was in recruiting Westerners to his extremist cause, is "a very important step. But remember Awlaki was always bigger in our eyes -- with good reason -- than he was" to his group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton, agrees that Awlaki loomed larger in the West than in the Arabic-speaking world because of his command of English.
"He's not the number 1, not the number 2, not the number 3 (in AQAP). He's not the chief religious leader, not the head bombmaker, he's not any of these roles. But in terms of being someone who inspired so-called 'lone wolf' terrorists in the West -- someone who speaks English, is very charismatic -- that's where he was a unique figure and he will not be as easily replaced."
Awlaki and fellow American Samir Khan, the editor of an English-language jihadi magazine who was also reportedly killed in the drone strike, are the latest terrorist motivational or operational leaders taken out under President Obama's watch.
Awlaki's elimination was greeted with bipartisan approval on Capitol Hill. Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, even went so far as to call it "a tremendous tribute to President Obama," saying that in recent years Awlaki "has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been."
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disagrees, saying Awlaki is "not more important than bin Laden, not by a long shot. Bin Laden was the founding leader of al Qaeda and head of the global movement. Awlaki was a very powerful orator, increasingly linked to operations according to U.S. officials, but to be clear amid all the congratulatory talk in Washington today, very little has changed in Yemen," which remains a key terrorist sanctuary. "The political and economic and humanitarian crises facing the country are far more dangerous than any one single person."
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, had developed over the last two years "from an Internet ideologue to full-blown operational planner," wrote Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, in a recent report.
"By no means is it the death knell of AQAP, but it is a significant blow, especially in terms of what he tried to export to the West," Cilluffo told The Huffington Post. "Awlaki was the primary proselytizer and mover and shaker trying to radicalize and recruit Westerners to the al Qaeda cause. With him out of the picture, that bodes well for the United States and national security."
U.S. intelligence officials, who once viewed Awlaki as little more than a propagandist for Islamic extremism, had grown concerned about what seemed to be his increasingly hands-on involvement in several recent terrorist operations:
-- Army Maj. Nidal Hasan carried on an email exchange with Awlaki in which he sought religious counsel about whether it was permissible to kill Americans. He later allegedly killed 13 people in a rampage at Fort Hood in November 2009.
-- Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be "underwear bomber" who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, met with Awlaki a few weeks before his bungled attack, according to Yemeni officials.
--- Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty to trying bomb New York's Times Square in May 2010, said he was "inspired" by Awlaki after making contact with the cleric through the Internet.
-- A 2010 plot to conceal bombs inside cargo shipped aboard planes headed to the U.S. is believed to have originated with AQAP and specifically with Awlaki.
-- Wikileaks cables released earlier this year linked Awlaki to a possible fifth team of hijackers who intended to take part in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Though Awlaki has never been charged in a U.S. court, the Obama administration added him to its
"capture-or-kill" list in January 2010 for his alleged role in the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas Day plot.
Johnsen, the Yemen expert, isn't convinced Awlaki was responsible for those attacks.
"It's not at all clear to me whether Awlaki is someone who pushed these lone wolves over the edge, or whether he spoke to their already-held beliefs," he said. "The argument is that if you kill him, you make America safer. I'm just not sure that's true."
Cilluffo said the killing of Awlaki could trigger more attacks in the short-term. He noted that many other senior al Qaeda leaders -- including bin Laden's personal secretary, Nasir al Wahayshi; bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, also a former personal secretary to Bin Laden; and released Guantanamo detainee Said al-Shihri -- all remain at large and eager to launch new attacks on the West.
Additional reporting by Joshua Hersh.