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The Killing of Anwar al Awlaki: How the United States Lost a Crucial Battle in the War of Ideas

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Technical Report

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Air Command and Staff College, Air University Maxwell Air Force Base United States

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By killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a highly influential radical cleric, in 2011 the United States hoped to deal a blow to weaken terrorist forces by decapitating al-Qaedas inspirational recruitment influence. However, a thorough assessment of al-Awlakis activities, reputation, and the archive of his messages and US messages in this battle reveals the negative strategic consequences of the decision to kill him. Since the United States did nothing to discredit him, or his messages, killing him only made him a martyr in his audiences eyes, which validated and strengthened his narrative. Additionally, systemic US confusion about who al-Awlaki was and when he radicalized led to strategic blunders in dealing with him and his message. The United States must learn from this case study to more effectively fight this strategic war of ideas and to better delineate friend from foe in the future.

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  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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