The irrelevance of Anwar Al-Awlaki

Anwar Al-Awlaki’s death brought about rounds of applause in the US administration, but in Yemen he remains unknown.

Yemen protestors
While Anwar Al-Awlaki was an unknown figure in Yemen, he was, however, an important target for the US administration [EPA]

President Obama made two statements concerning Yemen last week.

One was at the United Nations, where he voiced his support for the protests against the 33 year rule of President Saleh, “In Yemen, men, women and children gather by the thousands in towns and city squares every day with the hope that their determination and spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports those aspirations.”

The other statement was delivered after the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, “[We pay] tribute to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces who have worked closely with the US over the course of several years.”

One of these statements was deemed worthy enough to be analysed by CBS, who broke away from their main programming; however it was barely talked about on the Yemeni street.

It wasn’t what Obama said about Yemen.

Al-Awlaki is very much a product of the USA. Born and partly-raised there, he knew the country well. However, the Americans have also done a very good job in building up his al-Qaeda profile too.

For however many times an American says it, al-Awlaki was never the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was never ‘the next Bin Laden’. Sure, he was a member of the group based in Yemen, and he was a media-savvy propagandist for the group, changing from his more moderate pre 9-11 persona. But it was the Americans who have built him up into something he never was.

Whilst American officials were rushing to congratulate each other over the killing of al-Awlaki, wih Rick Perry even speaking positively about Barack Obama, most Yemenis have never heard of him.

If anything, it is only the more westernised English speakers who have heard of the ideologue, and that message coming mostly from the Western press.

Adam Baron, a freelance journalist in Yemen, hits the spot when he mentions in a tweet that his Arabic teacher had asked him whether al-Awlaki was a journalist. The irrelevance of al-Awlaki to Yemenis is one of the few things that unites pro and anti-Saleh people.

Al-Awlaki was primarily known in the English speaking world because that was his thing, he spoke in English and gave al-Qaeda a weapon to use in their attempts to gain the support of Western Muslims.

In Yemen itself, however, many Yemenis see AQAP as a smokescreen created, or at least aided, by Saleh’s regime to garner support from the West. Fingers are already being pointed to the suspicious coincidence of al-Awlaki’s death occurring a matter of days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. A sign for the Americans that they have to deal with Saleh? Or an indication that the regime knew where al-Awlaki was all along? Suspicions grow when it becomes clear that the battalion fighting AQAP militants in Abyan are affiliated to defected General Ali Muhsen, and they were only relieved, after three months, by forces that were again mostly affiliated to Ali Muhsen.

Yemenis have more important things to worry about than Anwar al-Awlaki. Those who have spent months on the streets protesting against President Saleh are happy that Obama has recognised them, but they want to see real action come as a result. Their daily chats do not concern Inspire Magazine’s latest issue, but how they are going to continue living in a place where power cuts have now become endemic, fuel is either non-existent or prohibitively expensive, protesters are getting shot on the streets, and civil war seems around the corner.

It is worth noting that the Yemeni youth movement is the West’s best hope for the fight against extremism in Yemen. As part of the wider Arab uprisings, it is proof that change for the better does not need to come with a suicide bomber’s belt. Yemenis raise banners proclaiming that they are against terrorism in their protests, and the world should pay attention to that as well as to the consequences of ignoring that, rather than to an apparent New Mexico-born super-villain.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi is a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and is the editor of Comment Middle East , a platform for young people to write about the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.



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