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Al-Qaida's Continuing Loss Of Leadership


Now, that al-Qaida leader killed this week, Anwar al-Awlaki, he was born in New Mexico. And a decade ago, he was already branding himself as a kind of spokesman for Muslim Americans. Here he is as a guest on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION back in 2001, two months after 9/11.

ANWAR AL: There's a bombing going on over a Muslim country, Afghanistan. So, there are some reasons that make the Muslims feel that, well, it is true that the statement was made, that this is not a war against Islam. But for all practical reasons, it is the Muslims who are being hurt.

MARTIN: Over the years, Awlaki's message got a lot more radical. And he started using YouTube to inspire new recruits from the West. Michael Leiter has been following Awlaki for years. He just stepped down as head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

MICHAEL LEITER: Awlaki was more focused on the West and other people who may have been killed in the strike, were more focused on the West than others within AQAP. Given the instability, the ongoing instability in Yemen, it is very possible that they will refocus their efforts on the Arabian Peninsula.

MARTIN: He wasn't just someone who inspired others to carry out these plots. He was operationally involved.

LEITER: He really was, and that was made him, I think, different from a lot of other al-Qaida leaders. He was, first and foremost over the past two years, an operational commander. He was the guy who had the ideas, who was training some of the operatives, who was guiding them in their path. This wasn't about him being a so-called cleric. This was him commanding, directing plots to attack the United States and the West.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about another American killed in the strike, Samir Khan, who was the editor of an online magazine called Inspire. What is the significance of him being removed from the battlefield?

LEITER: Well, the magazine to which you refer is the glossiest and fanciest of al-Qaida's propaganda. And it's very much written with an eye towards appealing to the Western audience and the disenchanted young people, either in the United States or Great Britain or elsewhere. Eliminating him will probably at least temporarily reduce their ability to produce that sort of propaganda.

But there's no doubt that some of their messages are going to continue. In my time in government, we rarely had an investigation involving a homegrown terrorist that did not, at some point or another, touch upon Anwar Awlaki and how he inspired them or inspire in Samir Khan as being an ideologue to which these individuals turned. And that message is going to continue to be out there.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the structure of al-Qaida. It has spawned affiliates over the years. How has the structure, though, evolved over the past decade beyond just affiliates spinning off?

LEITER: Of course, on 9/11 when we're struck, al-Qaida was a very hierarchical organization with a defined leader in bin Laden and a number two in Zawahiri. As you've said, over the past 10 years, we've seen affiliates be spawned in Iraq, in Yemen, of course, affiliates also in Somalia and North Africa.

Usually, when a leader is eliminated, it is the affiliates' responsibility to find a replacement. And I think, especially with the death of bin Laden, the relationship between the affiliates and al-Qaida in Pakistan is less important today than it has been in the past.

MARTIN: There have been a string of these high profile strikes against key al-Qaida targets, the strike that killed Osama bin Laden in May. But after that, the U.S. government says nine al-Qaida senior operatives have been killed in U.S. strikes. Can you explain - does one strike generate intelligence that leads to another?

LEITER: Well, without going into any sensitive sources and methods, they often do. You see the network of operatives react to the death of one leader, and that reaction can often lead to further opportunities. But I think more importantly, in a way, strategically, it is the pressure on all parts of the network that weaken the whole.

MARTIN: Michael Leiter recently left his post as the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. Michael, thanks so much for coming in.

LEITER: My pleasure. Thanks very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.