What Will Anwar al-Awlaki's Death Really Mean for al-Qaeda?

Research suggests that killing a senior leader in a terrorist network like al-Qaeda might not actually do much to degrade its long-term ability

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Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture

The apparent death of Anwar al-Awlaki -- a U.S. citizen hiding in Yemen, where he had worked with the local al-Qaeda branch -- comes amid a rash of bad news for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In addition to the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in early May, key operational figure Younis al-Mauretani was arrested earlier this month and al-Qaeda's second-in-command Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (who served under bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri) was allegedly killed in a CIA drone strike in August.

Top officials in the U.S. government have been claiming that al-Qaeda is on the ropes, and may be close to strategic defeat. But what does Awlaki's death really mean as a strategic matter?

This is not the first time that al-Qaeda has suffered immense attrition. Nor is it the first time that the U.S. has claimed near-victory. In September 2003, President George W. Bush boasted that up to two-thirds of al-Qaeda's known leadership had been captured or killed. In April 2006, the National Intelligence Estimate, which reflects the U.S. intelligence community's consensus, assessed that "the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse." The reason for this conclusion was al-Qaeda's organizational degradation.

Later, after al-Qaeda's role in several significant terror plots became clear, the intelligence community reversed that assessment, finding that al-Qaeda had in fact "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability." American observers had underestimated the group's resiliency. With Awlaki's death, and those of other important leaders, we need to be wary of again underestimating the enemy's ability to absorb top-level losses.

One of the great unknown works on terrorism studies of the past decade is a monograph written at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth by a then-major named Derek Jones, Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Cellular Networks. This careful, detailed, and compelling work explores one of the vital but under-discussed aspects of our fight against violent non-state actors: what impact do our "counternetwork operations" actually have on groups like al-Qaeda?

Jones, analyzing the form, function, and logic of these groups, concluded, "The removal of single individuals, regardless of function, is well within the tolerance of this type of organizational structure and thus has little long-term effect." In other words, killing senior officers in terrorist groups won't stop them, nor is it likely to weaken them much without a broader strategy for capitalizing on these deaths.

Terrorist networks are compartmentalized, with their various clandestine elements separated. The form of the networks is inherently linked to how they function, with a minimal organizational "signature." That is, they deliberately organize and operate in a way that minimizes the chance of being detected, or of being destroyed by a single strike like the one that killed Awlaki. "There is always a portion upon which to re-grown the movement if necessary," Jones wrote. "By compartmentalizing the organization ... the damage done by counterinsurgent operations is minimized and allows for the re-connection of the network."

Al-Qaeda experienced -- and recovered from -- some major leadership losses after the U.S. kicked the group out of its safe haven in Afghanistan in 2001. The group's Iraqi affiliate was also able to survive the loss of many key leaders -- it was only after Iraq experienced a larger popular movement against al-Qaeda that the group's power there diminished.

Of course, terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda can be beaten, and Awlaki's killing is a real victory for the U.S. But the bigger question is whether the U.S. is now thinking more strategically about how to beat a terror network like al-Qaeda; whether it has a better understanding about how the form and function of these networks contributes to their resiliency in the face of losses. The available evidence suggests that taking out one leader at a time is not the path to victory.

Over the past decade of its fight against al-Qaeda, the U.S. has too frequently mistaken successful tactics for strategic gains. If we are to turn the killing of important jihadi leaders like Awlaki into sustainable strategic success, we need to understand how the enemy's network functions and how our operations change it. Until then, we might be firing in the dark.