Taking out a big-time terrorist like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Anwar al-Awlaki is kind of like winning a key game in the fall run for the pennant: It’s a big victory, but it doesn’t mean you’ve won the World Series.
Sure, some high-fives, back-slaps and oh-yeahs have been earned by our intrepid spooks and military special-operations folks for getting a bad actor like Awlaki, who was born in the US but left for his parents’ home in Yemen as a kid.
But it doesn’t mean the fight with terrorism is over.
There’s no doubt the reportedly charismatic, self-proclaimed cleric was a dangerous dude and his demise is another bone-crushing roundhouse to al Qaeda -- and especially to AQAP, probably the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate out there today.
For instance, Awlaki had contact with at least three of the 9/11 hijackers, who frequented his mosques in Virginia and California, although it’s not clear whether he was aware of the horrific plot before it happened.
More recently, he had a direct or indirect hand in a number of serious terror plots or acts against the United States, including:
* Last year’s attempted Times Square bombing.
* The “ink cartridge caper,” where AQAP modified printer cartridges into bombs that they then sought to mail to the United States on air freight carriers, planning to blow up the bombs over US cities.
* The Underwear Bomber, who tried to bring down a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 by detonating explosives in his pants.
* The Fort Hood massacre, where a US Army major killed nearly 15 and injured almost twice as many in 2009 at one of our largest military bases.
With his native English-language skills, Awlaki was also key in the development of al Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire, which not only encouraged the terror group’s efforts to establish a global caliphate, but schooled them in terrorism’s dark arts.
So where do we stand now that Awlaki is gone?
First, Awlaki’s death deprives AQAP -- and al Qaeda globally -- of one of the most (if not the most) inspirational figures and talented operational commanders in its ranks, as evidenced by his work in just the last few years.
Some analysts recently came to see him as being as important to al Qaeda as Osama bin Laden himself, and actually thought he might come to lead the terror group after bin Laden bit the dust in May.
Next, al Qaeda has been stripped of one of its most powerful propagandists, who was especially skilled in so-called “digital jihad,” with a troubling ability to reach out to and recruit both English and Arabic speakers over the Internet. (Inspire’s editor was killed in the same drone attack that got Awlaki.)
So, for the moment, it’s likely to be harder, but not impossible, for al Qaeda to target future foot soldiers over the Web, and, hopefully, we’ll see Inspire find its way to the dustbin of history.
Moreover, Awlaki’s termination also lets terrorist and terrorist wannabes know that justice will find you if you start, or continue down, this bloody road, taking the lives of innocent people in your quest for power.
Finally, it’s possible that with Awlaki gone AQAP will stop targeting the West, specifically the United States. It may turn to toppling the Yemeni and Saudi governments, which has always been its top prize.
But all of this is in some ways uncertain. After all, al Qaeda didn’t throw up its hands and surrender after we offed Osama in May. It appointed a new leader in the likes of Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian who had long served as bin Laden’s deputy.
Similarly, it’s likely Awlaki will be replaced in the AQAP lineup by someone who’ll be anxious to prove he’s as skilled and as capable as his predecessor was in carrying out al Qaeda’s odious objectives.
There will also likely be a desire to seek revenge for the killing of Awlaki, perhaps meaning more violence directed at us. The group will certainly want to show prospective recruits and funders that it’s still worthy of the al Qaeda brand name. It still has the resources: AQAP has seized control of territory in Yemen from which it can still plan, train and operate.
And we shouldn’t forget there’s still plenty of al Qaeda out there, including al Qaeda in Iraq, al Shabab (Somalia), al Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa) and al Qaeda Central (Pakistan) -- not to mention its allies like the Taliban and Haqqani network in Afghanistan.
Bottom line: We’re better off now that Awlaki is gone, but the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates isn’t. A sigh of relief -- like that after the taking of bin Laden -- is a reasonable response, but embracing complacency isn’t.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in The New York Post