It’s been no secret that the US has had AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki on its terror list for quite a long time. In June 2010, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta insisted that the US did not have “assassination lists,” but we did have a “terrorist list” and Awlaki’s name figured prominently on it, and despite his status as an American citizen, Panetta promised that we would treat him like anyone else on the list. First, though, we had to find him. We came close enough in 2009 and 2010 to think that we’d finished the job, only to discover later that we had missed both times.
In this case, though, the US had Awlaki in its sights for several weeks — and apparently hoped to send an even bigger message with his death, according to Jake Tapper:
Senior administration officials say that the U.S. has been targeting Awlaki for months, though in recent weeks officials were able to pin down his location.
“They were waiting for the right opportunity to get him away from any civilians,” a senior administration official tells ABC News.
In fact, there was a flurry of activity on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
As President Obama shuttled between Shanksville, Penn., New York, NY, and the Pentagon, officials “thought they had a good opportunity to hit him,” the official says. “We waited, but it never materialized.”
It’s too bad that the opportunity didn’t arise on 9/11, which would have sent a powerful message indeed. Awlaki’s potential involvement in the 9/11 plot was noted in the 9/11 Commission report, on pages 221, 229-230, and in footnotes on pages 517 and 523. Awlaki might not be the only potential conspirator on the loose still left from the 9/11 plot, but he was perhaps the most significant. Awlaki probably figured that the US might want to strike on the anniversary as well, and kept out of sight until he thought the heat was off. Unfortunately for him, it appears he miscalculated.
The Obama administration isn’t being as coy about this as I thought they might. One “senior administration official” told Tapper that this was “a great day for America.” Another told Fox’s Jennifer Griffin (via Ed Henry) that it was definitely a US strike on Awlaki’s convoy that took him out, and not an attack by Yemeni forces. I’m not sure how smart it is to broadcast that, especially considering the political trouble that the Yemeni government faces at the moment. Discretion might be the better course.
Discretion might be better for Yemen, too. Besieged Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh now says he won’t leave office until his political enemies are removed from their positions:
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared Thursday that he would not step down as long as his key rivals remain in influential positions, potentially dashing U.S. hopes for a peaceful transition of power.
Saleh also said that the United States was playing a previously unknown role in assisting Yemeni forces fighting an al-Qaeda affiliate in southern Yemen, underscoring U.S. concerns that the political vacuum here could allow Islamist militants to deepen their grip and create a haven from which to attack the United States and its allies. …
Saleh said that a political transition plan crafted by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors made clear that “all elements” causing tensions in Yemen need to be removed. That meant his main rivals — Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who turned against Saleh and joined the nation’s now eight-month-old populist uprising, and the Ahmar clan, a powerful tribal family not related to the general — could not be allowed to run for elections or hold political office or a military command if he steps aside, Saleh said.
“Because if we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given into a coup,” he said. “If we transfer power, and they are in their positions, and they are still decision-makers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war.”
Saleh’s defiant stance underscored the deepening animosities between him and his rivals, which could torpedo the gulf Arab initiative. Hamid al-Ahmar, the tribal family’s billionaire scion who has expressed interest in the presidency, wields enormous political power in the main opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties. Mohsen, once Saleh’s confidant and strongest ally, still commands much of Yemen’s military and is revered by his soldiers.
In other words, Saleh wants to send a message to the US that they need him in place to continue our fight against AQAP. He may well be right, but will we be satisfied with just getting Awlaki? If so, then Saleh has more or less signed his political death warrant by revealing his (thinly veiled) connections to the US-led war against al-Qaeda in Yemen.