Monday, July 12, 2010

The Next Osama?

Anwar al-Awlaki is a name unfamiliar to most Americans, but it is one well-known in the jihadist world. This American member of Al-Qaeda used to serve as a prominent imam in the U.S., and is doing wonders for the terrorist group’s efforts to recruit Westerners and inspire homegrown terrorists. At this rate, he is well on his way to becoming the next Osama Bin Laden.

Unlike Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks English fluently and has lived in the U.S. for much of his life. He has religious credentials as an imam (despite his history [1] with prostitutes), references pop culture icons like Michael Jackson in his sermons, and has proven adept at using the Internet to build a following. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate based in Yemen that he holds a senior position in, is playing an increasingly prominent role in the overall terror network. He is the rising star in the jihadist world.

During his time in the U.S., al-Awlaki mastered the art of deception. He condemned the 9/11 attacks and was so slick that he was described [2] by The New York Times as a “new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West” in October 2001. He complained about U.S. foreign policy but said [3] killing in retaliation was not justifiable and that the U.S. had a right “to bring the perpetrators to justice.” Yet, Ray Suarez of PBS caught on [4] to al-Awlaki’s act after the attacks.

“One could walk away from the Friday sermon, or from the interview, struck by how in his rhetoric he could dance right up to the edge of condoning violence, taking the side of anti-American forces in the Muslim world, and then, just as carefully, reel it back in, pulling the punch, softening the context, covering the sharp-edged scalpel of his words in a reassuring sheath,” Suarez eloquently wrote. [4]

Al-Awlaki is inspiring and perhaps playing an operational role in the latest wave of terrorist incidents against the United States. Whereas Bin Laden’s location is unknown and commanders and individual militants have little or no contact with him, al-Awlaki is often in direct contact with operatives. Major Nidal Malik Hussein, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shooting in November that killed 13, exchanged [5] at least 18 emails with al-Awlaki as he looked for religious approval for his plans. Hussein also attended al-Awlaki’s sermons at Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia at the same time as two of the 9/11 hijackers. Al-Awlaki described him as a “hero” after the shooting.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “crotch bomber” who tried to detonate an explosive in his underwear onboard an airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas, is believed to have attended [6] at least one of al-Awlaki’s broadcasted sermons in London. They met in Yemen, when al-Awlaki blessed [7] the plot. Most recently, the authorities arrested [8] Barry Walter Bujool of Hempstead, T.X., who was emailing back-and-forth with al-Awlaki to brainstorm ways for him to help the terrorist cause. Al-Awlaki also had direct contact [9] with Ali al-Timimi, who is now in prison for his role in the “Virginia Jihad Network” that was training recruits with paintball guns and stockpiled weapons.

Al-Awlaki also may have had some role [10] in the 9/11 plot. When he was an imam in San Diego, two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were in his audience. When al-Awlaki became an imam at Dar al-Hijrah in 2001, he preached to al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, a third hijacker. The mosque has extensive ties to radical Islam as well as to Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and receives [11] taxpayer money by renting property to the Census Bureau.

His status as an imam, large Internet presence, and ability to speak English and appeal to Westerners is allowing him to inspire many homegrown extremists. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, was inspired [12] by al-Awlaki’s sermons. His material has been found [13] in the possession of many terrorists including those involved in the London bombings of 2005 and planned follow-ups, the group who planned to attack Fort Dix in 2007, members of the “Toronto 18″ who planned a range of attacks in Canada, countless online radical Islamic sympathizers, and an American convert in Illinois who tried to carry out attacks in Springfield in 2009. Al-Awlaki may also have a role in al-Shabaab’s recruitment of Americans, mostly Somalis, as his Yemen-based militants are actively working [14] with the Somali Al-Qaeda affiliate. The two men arrested [15] in early June as they were about to fly out of the U.S. to join al-Shabaab were fans of al-Awlaki.

It is troubling to think of how many people al-Awlaki is reaching through the Internet. Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann says [16] that his lecture, “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” is the “virtual bible for lone-wolf terrorists.” He says [17] that al-Awlaki and this sermon appear “to surface in every single homegrown terrorism investigation, whether in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or beyond.” His reach is extremely far, with even groups criticized by Al-Qaeda like Hizb ut-Tahrir linking [18] to his sermons. The FBI has found [19] that his sermons are still widely available in prison libraries, and Britain’s Islam Channel removed links [20] to his sermons after the press reported on it.

A British government study found [21] 1,910 videos of him and his material appear on YouTube, with a single one being watched 164,420 times. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which al-Awlaki serves with, will soon publish [22] its first online English magazine called “Inspire” with a guest column by al-Awlaki.

This presence is allowing al-Awlaki to become frighteningly proficient in recruiting Westerners who are less likely to be detected. A Senate report says [23] that up to three dozen Americans who have served prison time, described as “blond-haired, blue eyed-types” by one official, are now in Yemen and are suspected of being recruited by Al-Qaeda’s branch there. At least two females connected to this group have been trained, [24] may have Western passports, and could be sent from Yemen to carry out suicide bombings. British intelligence is warning about al-Awlaki’s influence on Muslim youth, with at least one offering [21] to become a suicide bomber after communicating with him.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told FrontPage that although Al-Awlaki’s prestige is increasing, is it a stretch to put him on Bin Laden’s level yet.

“He is also highly significant for English-speaking salafi jihadis. But al-Qaeda’s organization and operations are far more than just the outputs that we see making their way to the U.S., and the organization’s major strength does not come from its English-speaking contingent,” he said.

“Awlaki is a significant figure, but I don’t think the claim that he has eclipsed bin Laden (or even Abu Yahya al-Libi) is sustainable.”

Gartenstein-Ross, though, does not dismiss the deadly capability al-Awlaki possesses.

“Awlaki’s combination of perfect English, religious credibility (despite his lack of formal training), and jihadi message makes him a very significant figure, both in terms of radicalizing people and also operationally. The threat he poses is clearly indicated by the number of terrorist plots to which he is connected,” he said.

President Obama has wisely authorized the assassination of al-Awlaki despite his status as an American citizen. This unprecedented measure would not have been necessary had he not been released by the Yemeni authorities in 2006 and if they were fully committed to fighting radical Islam. Al-Awlaki’s tribal ties have proven to be an important asset. The closest he has come to death was in December when an airstrike targeted a meeting in Yemen he was believed to be attending. He says [25] that he learned he was being tracked from the Washington Post which prompted him to change his location, saving his life.

“Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea,” al-Awlaki has boasted. After 9/11, the world was shocked at Bin Laden’s ability to carry out a spectacular attack on the U.S. despite the efforts to capture or kill him. Hopefully, we won’t have to express the same shock about al-Awlaki.

By Ryan Mauro

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