World War 3.0
Fighting the YouTube insurgency
The calls to jihad emanated from the terrorist’s computer halfway around the world. In return came an aerial drone directed from halfway around the world that would silence him forever. No war was declared, no trial was held, and no troops were deployed.
Anwar Al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda field general killed last week by a C.I.A. Predator drone strike in Yemen, was an important target not for what he did but for what he said. Unlike Osama bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Awlaki was not an architect of specific terrorist plots. Nor was he a major recruiter within Yemen or the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Rather, al-Awlaki’s danger came from his ability to bridge the gap between radical Islam and Western culture.
The rise and fall of Anwar al-Awlaki epitomized this new form of combat in which the significance of borders and bullets, the currencies of war to this point, disintegrates and information becomes the new front line.
He was among the first jihadists to go viral. Born and educated in America, he was able to use technology to access and indoctrinate potential operatives remotely—homegrown terrorism from 8,000 miles away. Nearly all of the terror attempts on American soil in the past decade have cited him as a major influence: Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 and wounded 30 at Fort Hood in 2009; Faisal Shazad, the attempted Times Square bomber; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day, 2009.
Al-Awlaki was the first U.S. citizen to be placed on the C.I.A.’s “kill or capture” list. The drone strike that killed al-Awlaki and other terrorist leaders raised myriad questions about its legality: Can the American government kill one of its citizens outside of a warzone without due process of law? There is no doubt about either al-Awlaki’s guilt or the strategic need for his assassination. And if we’ve already decided to declare war on a concept such as “terror,” then anyone who incites is fair game.
When fighting a war of ideology, symbols are the most important targets. For a group that hated the respective economic and military hegemony of the United States, the potency of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon laid in what those buildings represented. Conversely, the killing of Osama bin Laden was a much more significant symbolic victory than a strategic one. Al-Qaeda is only as strong as its support among the communities that provide it with young and impressionable recruits, so the War on Terror amounts to competing public relations campaigns between the West and the radical Islamists.
Al-Awlaki’s crimes were those of provocation, not of personal violence. His strengths were his words and his ideas. Merely killing the man himself is only the first step. To truly destroy him, we must delegitimize him and neutralize his legacy in the eyes of his followers.
While living in San Diego, for example, al-Awlaki was busted on two separate occasions for soliciting prostitutes. Remember when those photos of Osama bin Laden watching himself on TV surfaced right after his killing? Or the pornography and marijuana that was recovered from his compound? When trying to destroy the foundations of an ideology, exposing its spiritual and ideological leaders as sanctimonious frauds is far more powerful than any number of Hellfire missiles.
Influencing public opinion has always been a key objective in any war, but its importance is magnified when the participants are not defined specifically by nationality or ethnicity. In the first two world wars, propaganda was secondary because battle lines were defined by nation: Governments were trying less to influence anyone to their side and more to retain civic opinion amid major sacrifices.
The Cold War was the turning point in the role of ideology in war. While there were two polar monoliths—the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.—true battles played out in the hearts and minds of those who ruled and lived in countries that were wavering between the American and Soviet paradigms. The War on Terror is even more nebulous: a leaderless movement uses any and all tactics to fight against a way of life that is only best represented by two nations, America and Israel. We are past the era of the nation-on-nation warfare of the 17th through 20th centuries or the proxy national battles of the Cold War.
Al-Awlaki represents the culmination of this transition between physical and ideological warfare. His threat was intangible and digital. His assassination was remote and surgical, occurring in a nation with which we were not at war. His nationality was irrelevant—even though he was nominally an American, he was an enemy of the state. But he was rightfully a top tier target. Men like him are the most dangerous combatants in a war without borders or defined adversaries. When there is no dictator to kill, no territories to conquer, information and ideas become just as important as insurgency and IEDs.
Sam N. Adams ’14 is a Crimson editorial writer in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.