The killing September 30 in Yemen of the militant American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, arguably the most recognizable transnational jihadi figure beside Osama bin Laden, deprives the transnational Sunni jihadi movement represented by Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) of its premier ambassador to English speaking and reading audiences around the world. His killing also cuts short his further ascendance as one of the most promising members of Al-Qaeda’s missionary vanguard of charismatic ideologues who harness their rhetorical flare and varying degrees of scholarly bona fides to further the goals of AQC and its sister groups. Using his gifts as a rhetorician, al-Awlaki fulfilled a key communicative role between Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which confirmed his death in a statement issued October 10, and the broader AQ movement and potential supporters. Al-Awlaki maneuvered himself into the position of being one of the transnational jihadi movement’s key ideologues, the most effective missionary of its self-declared "jihad" among English-speaking audiences.
Al-Awlaki’s influence has steadily expanded beyond this base since late 2008. His writings, sermons, and audiovisual messages have been translated into a number of languages beyond their original English or Arabic including Urdu, Bosnian, French, Russian, Somali, Indonesian, and Bangla. He has been referenced and praised by media networks affiliated with Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) insurgent movement and the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus.
Based on open source information, including AQAP media materials, al-Awlaki’s exact position within the organization, if any, continues to be debated after his death. There is no debate, however, that he was publicly endorsed by high-profile AQAP leaders including amir Nasir al-Wihayshi and Fahd al-Quso, who is wanted by the U.S. government for his alleged involvement in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Al-Wihayshi pledged his group’s support for al-Awlaki in a May 16, 2010 audio message. Al-Quso referred briefly to al-Awlaki in an interview with the London-based Arabic-language daily newspaper al-Quds al-‘Arabi that was published on September 19, saying that the American "agrees with the mujahideen in their vision and opinion." Neither al-Wihayshi nor al-Quso specifically listed al-Awlaki’s position, if any, within AQAP.
The nature of al-Awlaki’s relationship with AQAP and his importance to their broader media operation is indeed unclear. Despite frequent contributions by and references to him in AQAP’s English-language Internet magazine Inspire, al-Awlaki has only been mentioned a couple of times and usually in passing in short "news updates" featured in AQAP’s flagship Arabic-language magazine, Sada al-Malahem (Echo of Battles), which is aimed at its core base of supporters both inside and outside Yemen, whose native language is Arabic.
The level of support for al-Awlaki outside of AQAP and in particular within AQC’s leadership is debated. Anonymous U.S. government officials have claimed that intelligence gathered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan shows that some wanted the American to replace al-Wihayshi as AQAP’s amir but that the Saudi founder of AQC vetoed the suggestion. The evidence for this claim is not publicly available for public evaluation. A lengthy clip from al-Awlaki’s last video message, "Make it Known and Do Not Conceal It," released on November 8, 2010, was included in the fifth installment of al-Zawahiri’s series of audio and video messages about Egypt after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, which was released on April 14. A clip of al-Awlaki, taken from his "exclusive interview" with AQAP’s Al-Malahem Media Foundation that was released in May 2010, was first used by AQC in an October 2010 video message from fellow American Adam Gadahn. Al-Awlaki was not, however, explicitly or publicly endorsed by AQC’s senior leaders. Nor did he seem adamant about self-identifying or promoting himself as an official member of al-Qaeda, probably hoping to maximize the benefits of his image of relative autonomy in terms of freedom of speech and association.
The role of Muslim religious scholars (‘ulama) in supporting al-Qaeda’s "jihad" was one of al-Awlaki’s key interests, partly because he presented himself as a religious scholar and preacher, and he addressed the ‘ulama‘s responsibilities in much of his work. In "Make it Known and Do Not Conceal It," he calls on Sunni ‘ulama to fulfill their duties by supporting AQAP against apostate governments in the Muslim world, like that of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, that are allied with the "Crusaders, Zionists, and Rafidah ("Rejectionists," a derogatory term for Shi’ites). Al-Awlaki, in effect, was attempting to dialogue with other ‘ulama by strongly questioning why they have not yet spoken out. Al-Awlaki was also at the forefront of the transnational jihadi attempt to delegitimize the March 2010 Mardin Conference in Turkey, at which a group of Sunni ‘ulama attempted to re-interpret and contextualize a series of juridical rulings by the medieval jurist Ibn Taymiyya with the objective of delegitimizing al-Qaeda’s claim of juridically sanctified violence. "The [Mardin Declaration] is an ignominy… It is an insolent statement that shows no respect to the suffering of our ummah," he wrote in an eight-page article in the second issue of AQAP’s Inspire magazine.
Although al-Awlaki has presented himself as a scholar in order to solidify his legitimacy on the transnational jihadi scene, it is really the pragmatic and socially relevant content of his message that has built and sustained his popularity. His straightforward and unambiguous advice, on matters ranging from proper diet to the legitimacy of suicide attacks, has fed the appetite of his followers for everyday guidance. In an article titled "The Ruling on Dispossessing the Disbelievers Wealth in Dar al-Harb," al-Awlaki has engaged in an extensive discussion on Islamic jurisprudence regarding the legal status of goods stolen by Western Muslims from their fellow, non-Muslim citizens. Claiming that the West was considered Dar al-Harb (from the Qur’anic concept of the "House of War") because of its repeated military interventions in Muslim countries, he concluded that Muslims could legally dispossess non-Muslims since covenants of non-aggression based on citizenship and visa were invalidated by the non-Muslims’ attacks. The preacher had voiced arguments requesting that his followers abandon mainstream economic activities and stop paying taxes on previous occasions, with the ultimate justification that "income generated from booty taken by force from the enemies of Allah [was] purer and more virtuous" than any other type of income. These unconventional yet contextually-relevant exhortations were meant to alleviate the funding issues facing jihadi groups and to facilitate his followers’ transition to the outlaw lifestyle required by jihadi militancy.
Part spiritual adviser and part self-styled legal expert, al-Awlaki also produced timely and compelling political analyses. In response to the massive public uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya against autocratic regimes, al-Awlaki attempted to spin the rapidly changing events in AQ’s favor. In his article "The Tsunami of Change" published in the fifth issue of Inspire, al-Awlaki offered a rebuttal to the idea that the events of the Arab Spring had rendered al-Qaeda unattractive and irrelevant. Taking a pragmatic view of regional developments, he reassured his audience, which was wary of the seemingly secular trajectory of the Arab Spring, by declaring that there was no need for the immediate result to be Islamic governance because any political outcome could certainly not be worse than the regimes being overthrown. Al-Awlaki further claimed that the events in fact constituted an opportunity for jihadis across the Arab world to link up and pool their resources.
In addition to his role as a "missionary" ideologue masquerading as a learned religious scholar, al-Awlaki is perhaps best known publicly for his role in inspiring and in some cases actively counseling and encouraging the radicalization of a number of North American and European Muslims. The highest profile of those influenced either in exchanges over the Internet or in person with al-Awlaki were Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, and Faisal Shahzad. Lesser known, particularly in the U.S., is the American’s influence on Mounir and Yassin Chouka, two German brothers who currently occupy high profile positions in the Pakistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In a written narrative of their "journey to the IMU" released online by the IMU in February, Yassin, who is known within the IMU as "Abu Ibraheem al-Almani (The German)," wrote that he and his brother "benefited greatly" from him during the "precious hours" in which the preacher spent with them. Al-Awlaki and one of his associates ultimately played a key role in the brothers’ decision to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan to wage "jihad."
Parts of al-Awlaki’s life story remain debated or shrouded in mystery. Little is known, for example, about his summer 1993 experience in Afghanistan, the degree of his foreknowledge or involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and the exact nature of his role within AQAP. However, it is undeniable that he was an individual with unique abilities whom the transnational jihadi movement will no doubt have a hard time replacing. U.S. officials, and some AQAP experts , have claimed that before his death he had been playing a key operational role in the organization as the "chief of external operations," though this claim is debated. There is ample evidence that al-Awlaki played a very successful role as an ideologue in the radicalization process of members of his audience, but fewer concrete examples of his operational leadership. The real legacy of al-Awlaki lies in his popular message that lives on through his still widely-accessible lectures and online messages.
On October 14, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdul Rahman, who was also an American citizen, was killed along with his 17-year-old Yemeni cousin in a second U.S. drone strike in the Yemeni province of Shabwa. The boy’s family has spoken out forcefully against claims by Yemeni and U.S. government officials that he was a member of AQAP and was 21. The family released Abdul Rahman’s Colorado birth certificate showing that he was born on August 26, 1995. The two teenagers’ killings, which have also been condemned by the Yemeni Organization for Childhood Protection, have reopened the debate about the legality of the Obama Administration’s extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.
Bruno-Olivier Bureau is a master’s student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies the modern history of the Middle East, radical Islamist ideology and the propaganda strategies of the transnational jihadi movement.