Anwar al-Awlaki Continues to Inspire Islamists

Anwar al-Awlaki is Al Qaeda’s most charismatic leader in the West, even after his death, says Tara McKelvey.

Site Intelligence Group / AP Photo

The case this week of a 27-year-old man accused of plotting a terror attack on New York is fanning anew the worries of U.S. intelligence experts that the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s teachings are continuing to inspire violence even after his death in Yemen earlier this year.

Prosecutors allege that Jose Pimentel studied the art of bomb making in an Al Qaeda magazine, Inspire, created by Awlaki, while planning an attack on New York. It’s the latest in a series of episodes showing how Awlaki’s Internet sermons have motivated Americans to take up jihad, and raises the prospect that the late cleric’s stature may be growing from the grave.

“He’s like the Jack Kennedy of the global jihad movement,” says Jarret Brachman, a former researcher at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and author of Global Jihadism.

Awlaki, a cleric who lived for years in the United States, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September. Afterward President Obama described his death as “a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.” Still, his teachings have survived the bloody attack, particularly in the United States. The problem, say security experts, is that Awlaki was talented.

With a hypnotic, soothing voice—he sounded like he was from California—Awlaki made the Quran accessible to Americans. His work initially seemed honorable: he gave peaceful sermons and condemned the September 2001 terrorist attacks. More recently, however, his interpretations of Islam were filtered through a different lens, one that was soaked in blood. He sounded reasonable, even soothing, during his lectures, yet the underlying messages were chilling.

One of his former fans, a Muslim convert and the mother of four, told me that she would stand in her kitchen at her place in northern Virginia on weekday evenings and listen to his lectures, streaming from a nearby computer, while she seasoned lamb with cumin and mint for dinner. “He made the life of the Prophet Muhammad come alive for me,” she recalls. “He’s a very good storyteller. He took complex aspects of Islam and made them easy to understand and easy to put into practice. That’s a wonderful gift when he’s using it for good and for helping people to become better Muslims.”

Then Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009. Afterward someone told the woman that Awlaki had condoned the attacks. “I went back to his website and scrolled all the way down and saw some of his jihadist lectures. I was surprised and shocked,” she recalls. “My immediate reaction was, he’s a very dangerous man.”

Awlaki’s power lay in his ability to connect with ordinary people in this country and to make them feel closer to their faith and, tragically, to seduce them into violence. “Just about every plot in the United States has been somewhat influenced or inspired by Awlaki,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer.

A native of New Mexico and the son of a former Yemeni government minister, Awlaki had hazel eyes, thick eyebrows, and a high forehead, and in his online appearances came across as a hipster-preacher, with a laid-back approach to speaking about religion.

One of his YouTube lectures, stamped Dec. 29, 2009, is introduced with the words: “Islam / All the Cool Kids Are Doing It.” He mixes Arabic with English, slipping fluidly between the two languages and the two worlds.

Awlaki called for the deaths of Americans, and in January 2009 laid out guidelines for terrorist operations in a text called "44 Ways to Support Jihad." Despite a hyped-up reception in online forums, the teachings were low-key. “You learn a little about how to use weapons and that you should talk to friends about jihad,” explains counterterrorism expert Sageman. “It’s surprising how pedestrian jihad is. You’re like, ‘That’s it?’”

Like much of Awlaki’s early work, "44 Ways to Support Jihad" seemed nonthreatening, at least compared with other volumes in the Al Qaeda canon. One of his most important contributions to the genre, however, was anything but trivial: Americans who have considered launching an attack have had a hard time reckoning with the killing of civilians—ordinary men, women, and children who become a target of their wrath. Awlaki soothed their consciences.

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“The issue that people in the West struggle with is, is it legitimate to kill innocent people?” says Sageman. “You see that in videos that they leave behind. Awlaki gives them some justification, and these guys say, ‘OK, I can see it.’”

And while Awlaki was not as well known as other Al Qaeda figures during his life, he has had a more powerful impact after death, at least in the United States. “The New York police didn’t arrest someone who’s claiming to be inspired by Osama bin Laden,” says Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism. “But they did arrest someone who claimed to be influenced by Awlaki.”

This may be a harbinger of things to come: “I think it’s likely that Jose Pimentel won’t be the last person to be radicalized by Awlaki,” says Mitchell Silber, director of the Analytic Unit of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division and author of The Al Qaeda Factor. As it turns out, Silber has a personal connection: he is listed as one of Awlaki’s “foes” in a summer 2010 issue of Inspire. Silber believes that his enemy, whether “dead or alive,” will continue to exert power, adding, “One of the things the Internet can provide is immortality.”

Yet some experts believe that Awlaki’s postmortem power has been exaggerated and that the Internet, however formidable a tool, has limits. “After these people get killed, there’s a spurt of interest, and then it sort of dies of down,” says Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the Al Qaeda–Taliban monitoring team of the United Nations.

Political violence is a radical act, and Al Qaeda attacks, particularly suicidal ones, are rarely carried out on their own, without personal contact from homicidal mentors or terrorist leaders. Awlaki communicated directly with Hasan before he went on a rampage in Fort Hood, for example, and also with individuals who planned attacks on the West, and experts say that as time passes his influence is likely to fade.

Some security experts believe that terrorists will fail in their mission not because of the death of Awlaki or of any other leader, but because of the weakness of their argument. “The leaders of the terrorist groups are saying, ‘Kill people,’ and yet it doesn’t achieve anything,” says the U.N.’s Barrett. “The prediction that you’re going to change the world by killing people is shown to be false.”

Barrett and others believe that this reality about the world, more than a string of successful drone strikes against terrorist leaders, will ultimately lead to their downfall.