Gone But Not Forgotten

Anwar al-Awlaki might be dead, but his legacy of hatred and radicalism will live on.


The apparent killing of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone on Friday, Sept. 30, is not the end of this unique figure, perhaps one of the most misunderstood men in the annals of terrorism. Many questions remain about his exact role within al Qaeda, in particular his status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But even the most hyped descriptions of Awlaki’s "operational" capabilities pale in comparison with the force of his personality. Ultimately, his legacy will not be a litany of bombs exploded and airplanes hijacked, but of hearts and minds moved to hate.  

There is no question that Awlaki filled some sort of operational niche within al Qaeda. He personally emailed one would-be Western militant after another, urging them to cast aside all other ambitions in favor of taking violent action in their hometowns. He was allegedly sighted at AQAP training camps. He personally guided the 2009 underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to AQAP’s bomb-maker and claimed credit for the 2010 UPS cargo-plane bomb plot, mocking the United States for spending billions of dollars to prevent an attack that cost only $4,200 to mount.

But Awlaki’s exploits as a working terrorist are small potatoes compared with his impact as a personality, a storyteller, and a manipulator of minds.

Before most Americans ever heard of Awlaki the terrorist, Muslim Americans were very familiar with Awlaki, the inspirational speaker. Over the course of several years, Awlaki issued an incredible body of work that — on the surface — had little to do with terrorism or al Qaeda.

His primary format was audio, where his compelling voice and personality could best serve his message. Among his works are more than 50 CDs relating the life of the Prophet Mohammed, 21 CDs on the other prophets of Islam, 22 CDs on the afterlife, at least 33 CDs on the companions of Mohammed, several important lectures concerned primarily with validating violent interpretations of jihad, and finally open calls to violence and an explicit embrace of terrorism.

Awlaki took traditional Islamic sources and breathed life into them, transforming religious texts into gripping and emotional stories, often with substantial embellishment. He tailored his idiom and analogy to Western language and culture, but his most important skill was the ability to transform often skeletal sources into gripping tales.

Telling a good story is not necessarily heroic, but it counts for a lot. Awlaki wasn’t like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or AQAP’s emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. These true leaders of al Qaeda were renowned for their kinetic achievements, whether military or terrorist. Their allure and their appeal were built entirely on their credibility as supposedly "holy" warriors.

Awlaki, in contrast, was well established as an Islamic teacher before he turned to the dark side. Although some dispute the quality of his scholarship, it was good enough to make him a success. His popularity was indisputable.

If the first component of Awlaki’s legacy is his body of work, the second is surely the story he tried to tell about himself. That tale would be familiar to viewers of classic American Westerns such as Shane and Unforgiven. It is the story of a man driven over the edge by injustice until, finally provoked beyond his ability to bear, he picks up a gun and wreaks vengeance.

This narrative is fundamentally false, but that doesn’t mean it won’t endure. Awlaki had his fingers in al Qaeda’s cookie jar for a long time before he came out with an explicit call to violence. But his lectures and his public statements allow his supporters to argue for the view of Awlaki as a genuine martyr.

Martyrdom is nothing new to jihadi terrorism — in fact, it’s a major selling point. But Awlaki’s martyrdom has a different context. For most Americans, bin Laden sprang into existence as a full-blown militant. What little experience bin Laden had of life before jihad is a forgotten footnote in most accounts.

Not only did Awlaki have a life before jihad, but he lived that life in the United States, as a citizen and (at least on the surface) as someone laboring to forgive and understand the land where he was born. Even as he secretly met with 9/11 hijackers and friends of blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, he was crafting a public persona as a moderate Muslim. Through his pulpit in San Diego and later Falls Church, Virginia, and through lectures distributed on CDs and over the Internet, he reached at least thousands of people with devotional stories that were overtly moderate, or at least embedded his more extreme views deep in the text.

With his alleged death, the narrative that Awlaki wanted to sell us is now complete: the reasonable man, pushed too far, who reluctantly took up the gun and was finally killed by the enemy he dared face.

The effects of this story will likely reverberate for years to come; in the short term, Awlaki’s death will probably elevate interest in his entire body of work, from beginning to end.

All this highlights the peculiar dilemma of how the West deals with terrorists of al Qaeda’s stripe. Al Qaeda has predicated its war against the United States on the premise that the West is persecuting Muslims and attacking Muslim countries. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have reinforced that idea, for some people, and the sanctioning of the "targeted killing" campaign against Awlaki raises especially unfortunate overtones concerning due process for American citizens.  

Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, in his book, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, borrows the analogy of Muhammad Ali’s "rope-a-dope" to describe al Qaeda’s strategy for fighting the West. They hope that we will punch ourselves into economic exhaustion and then topple to defeat.

The strategy is broader than this, however. In addition to the economic asymmetries (over which Awlaki gloated in his magazine, Inspire), there are the unintended consequences of the U.S. kinetic actions in the Middle East and beyond. War always features collateral damage. When Marines crash into a country or drones hover above, they incur a number of costs. Civilians killed by U.S. forces become a propaganda tool for its enemies. The disruption of existing orders — as seen in Iraq and now feared in Libya — provides opportunities for radical movements to operate, recruit, fundraise, and even occupy territory.

The death of bin Laden, and now of Awlaki, may offer Americans a chance to salve the festering wounds of 9/11. In the final analysis, despite the potential for negative repercussions, the successful targeting of these larger-than-life figures provides an opportunity to take a deep breath and evaluate what comes next in the seemingly never-ending war against al Qaeda.

There is now an opportunity to raise fresh ideas and evaluate how the U.S. metrics for success against terrorism — the killing of marquee enemies — ultimately play out in the global battlefield. In death, inspirational figures like Awlaki and bin Laden can never disappoint their admirers. Their strengths and their weaknesses are frozen in amber, and their ideas and images will endure. The ghostly voice of Anwar al-Awlaki will stream over the Internet for a very long time to come. We should not assume it will be any less persuasive just because he’s dead.

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

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