3 October 2011
By Leah Farrall
THE killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a drone strike in Yemen last week has been hailed as a significant triumph in the war on terror.
Awlaki's extrajudicial execution, it was claimed, deprived al-Qa'ida's Yemen branch of an external operations chief, while Khan's demise removed a senior propagandist responsible for compiling the al-Qa'ida-branded English-language publication Inspire.
Killing them, authorities said, made us all safer, and decimated al-Qa'ida's operational capabilities, particularly its reach into the West.
But the claims, made repeatedly in recent days, remain unsubstantiated.
Awlaki was a skilled if unoriginal propagandist, prone to re-hashing the work of others, but his operational role was unverified and, at best, limited.
Senior figures in al-Qa'ida considered him an inexperienced outsider, and were not comfortable with his position. Nor were they necessarily trusting of him. Khan fared worse, having earned Osama bin Laden's ire after publishing suggestions in Inspire on how to mow down civilians in indiscriminate attacks, which the former al-Qa'ida leader viewed as counterproductive to his agenda.
Neither Khan nor Awlaki had a combat or operational pedigree, and they were not part of the inner circle of operational cadre.
And, while the hype surrounding the pair may have seen some of their colleagues in al-Qa'ida's Yemen branch become star-struck, the terrorist organisation's central leadership soon put rest to any ideas of them taking more prominent operational positions.
Even for the purposes of pushing propaganda, the pair's inexperience counted against them.
The deaths will not damage al-Qa'ida in Yemen's operational capacity, and will do little if anything to make anyone safer.
Still, both figures - Awlaki, in particular - continue to be represented as significant threats to security in the West, and their removal has been portrayed as a sign of great progress in the war on terror.
Lionising militants by individualising the threats they pose, before eliminating them and claiming victory, hardly counts as progress.
But this is exactly what took place following Khan's and Awlaki's killing, as is clear by the lauding of "progress" and "victory" emanating from government circles.
These triumphalist sentiments, being reinforced by a chorus of media and pundits, reduce and redefine the notion of success to the removal of individuals or small groups of men.
Such narratives fail to address how the rise of figures such as Khan and Awlaki represent a generation within the terrorist movement that operationalised after September 11.
Rather than demonstrating progress in the war on terror, the killings of these men highlight the broader militant movement's resilience and capacity for self-regeneration.
Awlaki and Khan were not longtime members of al-Qa'ida; in fact, they may not have been full members of the organisation at all.
They were newcomers whose stature and ascension within the militant milieu owed as much to their lionisation at the hands of US and Western governments as it did to their actions.
Claiming from their deaths victory over a threat, which stemmed in large part from the lionisation of these two men, is an ominous sign of how precious little progress has been made in the war on terror.