The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone attack in Yemen shows the extent to which the C.I.A has succeeded in putting together an effective intelligence gathering system on the ground to track al-Qaeda's leadership. It is the second important catch for the United States after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year. Awlaki had been on the C.I.A radar ever since a U.S. military doctor killed 13 fellow soldiers at a Texas military base in 2009. Immediately before that incident, the medic had exchanged emails with the American-born Yemeni cleric who lived and preached in the U.S. until 2002. Awlaki was said to have inspired others arrested in the U.S. for terrorist plots, such as the Nigerian ‘underwear bomber,' and the Pakistani-born Times Square bomber. He was also linked to the 2010 airline parcel bomb, and though he was never named in the 9/11 attacks, three of the bombers were said to be in frequent contact with him. President Barack Obama has described him as the chief of “external operations” of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” But his role was more of a propagandist whose fluent English and insider knowledge of the west appealed to the young American and British Muslims al-Qaeda sought to radicalise and recruit. Also killed in the attack was another American citizen, Samir Khan, who was the editor of al-Qaeda's magazine Inspire. More than Awlaki's elimination, the gain for Washington would be the panic and insecurity that the manner of his killing is likely to have created in the top al-Qaeda leadership: from a Hellfire missile fired by an unmanned plane that had the information to pinpoint his location exactly as he travelled with companions across a desert in North Yemen.
Believing the al-Qaeda's Yemen operations were now a bigger threat than what was left of it in Pakistan, the C.I.A sought to expand its covert war against the group by building a secret base in the Arabian peninsular region earlier this year. Awlaki's killing would seem to be a fairly quick payoff. As Pakistan and Yemen are thought to cooperate in the C.I.A's drone operations, the question of U.S. violation of the national sovereignty of those countries finds no resonance in the world today, despite the dangerous precedents it sets in international relations. It is ironical that Awlaki's killing has drawn protests against the Obama administration's denial of due process to an American citizen. Something is clearly wrong if American rights activists can work up so much outrage on behalf of a fellow citizen linked to al-Qaeda but not for the innocent civilians who perish in C.I.A's drone attacks in Pakistan.