President Barack Obama had his eye on questions about the legality of an extra-judiciary killing of American-borne terrorists when he inflated the importance of Anwar al-Awlaki and exuberantly called his death in a US drone attack in Yemen on Friday Sept. 29 "a major blow" to "al-Qaida's most dangerous affiliate," the AQAP.
The president went on to describe al-Awlaki as "the leader of external operations for AQAP," with involvement in planning and directing attempts to murder Americans, i.e., the failed plots to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009 and U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
The dead terrorist's constant exhortations to the faithful in America and elsewhere to kill innocent men, women and children were undeniable – not so, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources, his involvement in operational terrorism. This was never proven, nor even substantiated by intelligence data.
Al Awlaki's only known link to a terrorist act surfaced after the massacre of 13 US servicemen perpetrated by the US major of Palestinian-Jordanian extraction Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood base in November 2009. Even then, the killer was inspired – not directed – by al-Awlaki.
The Yemen-based terrorist would have dearly loved the title of AQAP's chief of external operations, attached to him by the US President. But he never persuaded his bosses to grant him this high rank.
The Saudis tipped the CIA off on Al Awlaki's whereabouts
It is important to note that a second American citizen was killed in the same CIA drone strike. He was Samir Khan, editor of the al Qaeda's quality English language Inspire Magazine. The US tried to disguise the targeting of two US citizens by reporting a third death in the raid, that of the local Hassan Ibrahim al-Asiri, the AQAP's explosives expert. However, Yemeni security services and army denied his death.
Therefore, although the raid was a success in terms of the West's war on terror, its net consequence was the elimination of the American component of Al Qaeda in Arabia, an outcome which happened to suit al Qaeda's top echelon perfectly by helping to tighten its ranks and deepening the secrecy shrouding its Yemen operation.
(See also HOT POINTS below).
So where did the CIA get the precise and specific information for its raid of the convoy carrying al-Awlaki through Khashef in Jawf province in central Yemen, 140 kilometers east of the capital Sana?
US sources claimed it was the outcome of a two-year manhunt. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources in the Gulf, the tip-off came from Saudi intelligence as part of a three-way US-Saudi-Yemeni package deal. Not all the parties may have been privy to its particulars.
This was how it worked:
In the third week of September, Saudi agents picked up the trail of the two American al Qaeda operatives and placed them under surveillance. They passed the information to the CIA personnel operating the Predator drones in Yemen from a secret installation inside the Saudi air base at Khamis Mushayt in the Najran region. The US Air Force was now allowed the use of a Saudi base for the first time in the seven years since it was asked by Riyadh to remove its command centers from the kingdom.
The Americans paid for the Saudi tip-off by letting up on Ali Saleh
For the White House, the tip-off was momentous: It was both a lead to high-value terrorists and signaled a thaw in the frost overlaying US-Saudi relations for many months.
But it came with a price tag: Washington must not make a fuss about the return of Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh from Riyadh to Sanaa and swallow its insistence on his resignation.
The Obama administration was astonished: This condition as laid down by Saudi intelligence contradicted the assurances received from Saudi King Abdullah and the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz a week earlier that the Yemeni president would be prevented from flying home.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 510 of Sept. 23)
Nevertheless, President Obama gave it the nod without altogether understanding how the Saudi turnabout happened. Ali Saleh and his party accordingly boarded a plane bound for Yemen Friday, Sept. 23.
One theory going around intelligence circles in Washington accounts for the reversal by the highhanded action of a senior Saudi intelligence faction opposed to the royal family's Yemen policy.
This faction reportedly offered to level with the CIA at Khamis Mushayt on the two terrorists' movements if the US cooled the heat on Ali Saleh to resign, and then secretly organized the Yemeni president's surreptitious flight from Riyadh to Sanaa.
Another theory links King Abdullah, who has been in poor health lately, to this same wayward intelligence faction; while formally subscribing to one policy, he is said to be working clandestinely to promote another.
Al Qaeda's main thrust was not slowed by the loss of its two American operatives
While waiting for the Riyadh power play to be clarified and finding out who manipulated whom, the White House decided to capitalize on the Washington-Riyadh tradeoff as an opportunity for improving relations between President Obama and King Abdullah.
As soon as the two American terrorists were disposed off, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was on his way to Riyadh with the president's thank you to the king for the intelligence input and to test the ground for further cooperation on other Middle East issues, most urgently Syria.
As for al Qaeda, rather than sustaining "a major blow," its organization in Yemen is forging ahead with the expansion of its penetration of southern Yemen, a drive in which the US-born Al Awkali and Khan were never given a part. Their demise has not really dented the organization's main thrust.
More than one expert confirms that Awlaki's death leaves AQAP's key players still at large and very dangerous. Ali Saleh’s return to Sana and the Saudi royal family’s continuing support for him helps al Qaeda hide its true face and objectives.
In Yemen, AQAP has taken a leaf out of the al Qaeda-linked groups in Libya and turned itself into an integral part of the popular opposition to the Ali Saleh regime. That opposition is more than willing to draw additional strength from Al Qaeda's support, especially as it comes in the form of funding, weapons and fighters.
Blending into the Yemeni opposition gives al Qaeda more soldiers.
The Yemeni people rising up against the regime are becoming ready to believe that al Qaeda is on its side and helping to fight for its cause. It has therefore turned the tables against the United States
By killing al Qaeda operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, the United States was maneuvered in Yemen onto the wrong side of the Arab Spring.