An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Myth of Anwar al-Awlaki

One of America's most-wanted Islamist radicals was once a humble, mainstream preacher who became enraged by the war on terror. At least, that's the story some people are selling.


On Tuesday, Aug. 9, Naser Abdo, an American soldier, was indicted for plotting a terrorist attack against soldiers stationed at Fort Hood -- just the latest in a series of U.S. citizens who have been inspired to violence by the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who went rogue and today threatens the United States from his father's country of Yemen.

On Tuesday, Aug. 9, Naser Abdo, an American soldier, was indicted for plotting a terrorist attack against soldiers stationed at Fort Hood — just the latest in a series of U.S. citizens who have been inspired to violence by the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who went rogue and today threatens the United States from his father’s country of Yemen.

Awlaki is clearly a dangerous man. As a country, the United States spends a lot of time talking about, worrying about, and trying to kill him. Unfortunately, attention runs fast, but not deep.

On July 27, Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald argued that Awlaki represented "the face of moderate Islam" and "the opposite of [Osama] bin Laden" before Sept. 11, 2001. By Greenwald’s account, Awlaki was subsequently radicalized by America’s wars and foreign policies. This conclusion was based on exactly two sources — an interview conducted with Awlaki in 2001 and another interview dated 2009.

On the same day, Navy SEAL Adm. Eric T. Olson, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, discussed the threat posed by Awlaki. "He’s a dual-passport holder who has lived in the United States," Olson said, "so he understands us much better than we understand him."

In reality, Awlaki has given us a shocking abundance of material with which we can judge and understand him. He has recorded more than 100 hours of audio lectures, more than bin Laden, almost all of them in colloquial English. He has also figured in a long trail of investigations, including FBI and 9/11 Commission documents that are available to the public. Taken together, these sources reveal a portrait of a conflicted man whose path to radicalization started in the 1990s and steadily progressed to his present-day status as a terrorist icon.

Awlaki is not difficult to know, as Olson suggests, and he is not a two-dimensional talking point, as Greenwald would have us believe. He is a man, complicated and at times confounding, but accessible through his words and actions.

Awlaki was born in the United States, but spent his formative teen years in Yemen, during the height of the jihad against the Soviets. He reportedly grew up watching videos of the mujahideen as entertainment, in much the same way his American contemporaries watched Knight Rider.

He returned to the United States to study engineering at Colorado State University. According to his roommate, Awlaki spent one summer at a jihadi training camp in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, though that claim has not been independently corroborated. When he returned from Afghanistan, he was more interested in religion than engineering, and he began a career as an imam, or Muslim preacher.

Preaching in Colorado during the mid-1990s, Awlaki’s stirring sermons on jihad reportedly moved a Saudi student to drop out of college and join jihadists in Bosnia and later Chechnya, eventually meeting death in battle.

When Awlaki moved to a bigger congregation in San Diego in the late 1990s, he inspired ever greater devotion in public, while failing his Islamic principles in private with arrests for soliciting prostitutes and hanging around a schoolyard, according to 9/11 Commission records. He also met with an al Qaeda facilitator named Ziyad Khaleel. The nature of their relationship remains unknown, but the FBI subsequently opened an investigation into Awlaki.

That investigation was closed for lack of evidence — precious months too soon. In early 2000, two men arrived at Awlaki’s San Diego mosque — Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the 9/11 hijackers.

The mere presence of these men at Awlaki’s mosque is not enough to infer a connection. But the relationship went beyond the casual. Awlaki, the "moderate," met with the future hijackers behind closed doors. The preacher’s friends and followers also provided substantial amounts of assistance to the al Qaeda operatives, helping them find an apartment and open bank accounts, driving them around the area, and acting as translators when needed, according to FBI and 9/11 Commission records.

Hazmi told acquaintances in San Diego that Awlaki was a "great man" and the pair’s "spiritual leader."

The story repeated itself on the East Coast, where Awlaki took a job as imam at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia, in early 2001. The FBI and 9/11 Commission determined that at least two and as many as four of the 9/11 hijackers attended Awlaki’s services at Dar Al-Hijrah, including Awlaki’s San Diego disciple, Hazmi. As in San Diego, Awlaki’s followers provided assistance to the hijackers, including one who drove them up and down the East Coast and helped them obtain identification cards.

All of this activity obviously took place prior to Sept. 11, 2001. And while it is true that Awlaki often presented a moderate face when talking to the media, his sermons and lectures did not always reflect such views, often showing a man who seemed conflicted and drawn to darkness.

A rare recording from Awlaki’s San Diego period discusses the practice of takfir — declaring Muslims with whom one disagrees to be apostates or infidels (kafir). During the sermon, Awlaki told listeners that the practice is dangerous and wrong:

[If] you tell your brother that he is a kafir, if he is not, it will come back on you…. We do not know what is in the hearts of people. [If we think] this man is saying with his tongue what he doesn’t mean in his heart, [tradition] tells us we are not ordered to open up and seek what is in the hearts of people.

But in the very same speech, Awlaki rattled off a number of occasions under which takfir was acceptable — such as if someone publicly renounces Islam or expresses belief in something that conflicts with Islam. Other qualifying offenses include "giving the attributes of Allah to a human being" (an offense known as shirk) or insulting the prophets of Islam.

In later lectures, Awlaki would argue that the punishment for such apostasies is death.

During a lecture on tolerance from 2001, just days before 9/11, Awlaki explained that Muslims were the most tolerant people throughout history, but said it was unreasonable to expect Muslims in modern times to continue that tradition:

Now, is there … a problem among the Muslim community of intolerance towards other faiths? Well, to some extent there is. To some extent there is.

However, when one is dealing with the issue of tolerance, usually the party that is asked to be tolerant is the party that is in power, the party that is in control. However, when a people are suffering, and oppressed, it is not easy, or it’s not, doesn’t even make a lot of sense to bring up the issue of tolerance.

While still in the United States, Awlaki also began to explore the concept of jihad. In one lecture on "The Hereafter," he said:

If you look at the wars, not only the fights between individuals, but even wars between nations and states, most of the time, it’s over wealth. It’s over dunya [earthly or material concerns]. What are they fighting for? Over oil, over land, over natural resources. That is why wars happen.

Therefore, the only justified war, the only justified war is jihad. Because that is the only fight that is happening for the sake of Allah [the glorious]. Everything else is happening for the sake of dunya. They attack jihad in Islam, as if their wars are justified. What are they fighting for?

Awlaki’s radical leanings were not born on Sept. 11, 2001, but there is no question that he progressed down a dark path in the wake of that attack. While many of his broadsides were indeed aimed at U.S. foreign policy, he was also clearly rattled by the FBI’s interest in his relationship with Hazmi and Mihdhar.

In the days after 9/11, Awlaki, one of many Muslim leaders stepping forward to give the community’s response to the attacks, spoke to the media over and over again. His comments were often qualified. "We were told this was an attack on American civilization," he told the Washington Post. "We were told this was an attack on American freedom, on the American way of life. This wasn’t an attack on any of this. This was an attack on U.S. foreign policy."

In interviews with the FBI, Awlaki admitted knowing the hijackers, but he lied to reporters who came asking whether he had met them. As he tried to keep his secret from becoming public knowledge, he bemoaned the FBI’s "siege" of the Muslim community.

Rather than focus on the perpetrators of 9/11 — whom he had, wittingly or unwittingly, assisted in their suicide mission — Awlaki pointed, with increasing stridency, at the U.S. government, while his condemnations of terrorism became ever more equivocal and convoluted.

Take this sermon from October 2001 — before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and a month earlier than the "moderate" interview cited by Greenwald. Here, Awlaki blames the terrorists for their violent acts but blames the United States for far worse, characterizing international sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime as murder:

The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians does not justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington, D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington, D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.

Awlaki’s sermons then began to spiral out of control. His voice, once steady and clear, began to waver and tremble with emotion. At times, he blamed the Jews for the plight of American Muslims, saying that they controlled the media and government and citing recordings of Richard Nixon in the White House as evidence. He even predicted that the United States would outlaw Islam.

Awlaki left the United States in early 2002, but the specter of his role in the 9/11 attacks continued to hang over his head. He began to obsess over prison and prisoners, such as in this undated speech from his post-U.S. period, citing everyone from the United States to Amnesty International as conspirators against Islam:

Every sinister method of interrogation is used against [Muslim prisoners]. They would use against them homosexuals to rape them. They would bring their mothers and sisters and wives, and they would rape them in front of these brothers. The United Nations knows about it. Amnesty International knows about it, and they are doing nothing. In fact, sometimes they are encouraging it.

Although Awlaki does not hesitate to invoke U.S. policies, real and imagined, his interests reach far beyond that narrow channel. His grievances are hardly constrained to politics and war. In 2008, in an hourlong lecture, he cited a host of previous Islamic scholars to argue that any insult to the Prophet Mohammed should be avenged by murder:

It is the consensus of our scholars that the one who curses [the Prophet Mohammed] should be executed … without any warning…. Whoever seeks to harm [the prophet] or belittle him, then he should be killed. Even if it is a very small thing. In fact, al-Imam Malik says that if someone says that the button of [the prophet] is dirty, he should be executed. Even if it is as small as that, this person should be executed…. And we don’t know any different opinion. This is a consensus, and we don’t know any different opinion…. When the scholars have a consensus on something, it is just like the Quran and Sunnah.

One of Awlaki’s most influential audio recordings, Constants on the Path of Jihad, was recorded no later than 2006, long before the cleric publicly endorsed attacks on Americans. In several hours of lectures, Awlaki commented on an Arabic-language al Qaeda text, expanding it and updating it with his own interpretations. According to Awlaki, jihad is not merely a matter of political grievances; it is also for fighting those who do not accept Islam:

Some people say that our relationship with the [Christians and Jews] should be a relationship based on peace and dialogue, but this [verse of the Quran] is specifically saying that the relationship should be a relationship of fighting until they pay attention. Allah says fight those who disbelieve [until they agree to be ruled by Muslims] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.

Later in the lecture, Awlaki explained that jihad was not limited to any particular conflict and that jihad would not cease if — for instance — the United States pulled its forces out of Muslim countries. For Awlaki, jihad is as much about the promulgation of Islam as it is about defense:

Jihad is appropriate for every time and age…. One of the false beliefs out there is that jihad is attached to some particular lands. If you want jihad then you have to go to this particular area…. If the land ceases to be a front, people would think, well, that’s it, jihad is over…. So we have to establish an important principle, and that is, jihad is global. Jihad is not a local phenomenon, jihad is global, and jihad is not stopped by borders or barriers…. You cannot convey the message of Allah without [military] jihad.

None of this is meant to suggest that U.S. policies are not part of Awlaki’s worldview, nor is it meant to suggest that political grievances do not play a role in radicalization. Terrorist recruiters like Awlaki seize on every misstep the United States makes to build its case that America is at war with Islam. But that argument is for new recruits and foot soldiers. Jihadist intellectuals like Awlaki are painting on a much wider canvas.

Awlaki is not the right subject for a portrait of the terrorist as political revolutionary, as Greenwald would have him, motivated only by legitimate grievances on the world stage. Awlaki’s writ is broader, and his absolute criterion for peace — total surrender to his vision of Islam and an end to free speech — is unacceptable to reasonable people.

Nor is he an enigma, as Admiral Olson suggests. Does Awlaki know America better than most Americans knows him? Perhaps, but only for lack of trying. The excerpts above are only a fraction of Awlaki’s work, perhaps not even the most revealing. This material is widely available; there’s no good reason for anyone working in homeland security to plead ignorance of the Yemeni-American cleric’s arguments, personality, or public views.

Listening to Awlaki is an important first step to understanding his impact on our war with al Qaeda and its homegrown, English-speaking adherents.

All you have to do is press "play."

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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