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

Anwar al-Awlaki’s Life After Death

The persistent popularity of the American imam killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen is a lesson in the difficulty of stamping out radicalism.


Scott Shane’s book Objective Troy: A President, a Terrorist, and the Rise of the Drone won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize, awarded by Foreign Policy and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to the best nonfiction book on foreign affairs.

Scott Shane’s book Objective Troy: A President, a Terrorist, and the Rise of the Drone won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize, awarded by Foreign Policy and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to the best nonfiction book on foreign affairs.

The book recounts the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki, who began his career as a mainstream American imam and eventually became the leading propagandist in English for al Qaeda. After he was linked to the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009, Awlaki was added to the kill list by President Barack Obama. On Sept. 30, 2011, he became the first American citizen to be deliberately hunted and killed without trial on orders of a president since the Civil War.

On a cold February day in Minneapolis, Abdirizak Warsame, 21, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to support a terrorist group, admitting his role as ringleader of a group of young Somali-Americans who had decided to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. His was an unexpected case. Though several dozen young Somalis from Minnesota had left to fight for al-Shabab in Africa or the Islamic State, Warsame seemed an unlikely candidate for armed jihad. An aspiring poet and rapper, he had struck an inspirational note in his youthful work. His mother had warned publicly against the dangers of radicalization at a town hall meeting two months before his arrest. I had actually spoken with Warsame early last year, after a friend of his left for Syria. He told me convincingly — and falsely, as it turned out — about how shocked he had been when the friend, Abdi Nur, disappeared.

When the federal judge overseeing the case, Michael Davis, asked him to explain what had drawn him to the Islamic State, Warsame mentioned one name: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who had become the preeminent English-language recruiter for violent jihad. Awlaki had been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen more than four years earlier, and Obama administration officials believed they had eliminated the man many considered the single most dangerous threat to national security. What they had not anticipated was his posthumous persuasive power on the Internet. Awlaki, Warsame told the judge, had convinced him that it was his religious duty to take up arms in defense of Islam.

When I set out to write Objective Troy (the cleric’s code name on the U.S. kill list) after Awlaki’s death, I wondered whether he might be irrelevant and long forgotten by the time I finished. I need not have worried. As I worked on the book, the number of hits for “Anwar al-Awlaki” on YouTube climbed from 40,000 to 60,000. Now it has passed 70,000, constituting a mishmash of posted and reposted messages from a man who lived his entire professional life in front of microphones and video cameras.

Alongside clips from Awlaki’s early, 53-CD boxed set on the life of the Prophet Mohammed — totally mainstream material — was the immensely popular lecture he gave in London in 2003 explaining to young Muslims why they must “never, ever trust the kuffar,” or non-Muslims. Mixed in with lectures by Awlaki on the sanctity of marriage and the dangers of overeating was his series on “The Constants of Jihad,” scholarly in tone but martial in message. In response to criticism from experts on radicalization, YouTube has recently begun to take down his 2010 video calling for young American Muslims to fly to jihadist battlegrounds or stage attacks at home. However, even his most venomous and inflammatory material is not hard to find elsewhere on the Web.

To impressionable young minds, Awlaki still offers both an elementary introduction to Islam and a rocket ride to the bigotry and mayhem of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which has used his face and recordings in its propaganda. His warm, patient voice — the authoritative tone of a speaker unveiling indisputable truths — can be mesmerizing. And since 2011, courtesy of that CIA missile, he has spoken from beyond the grave with the particular authority of the martyr.

This is why investigations of dozens of terrorism cases in the West, including some of the most devastating attacks, continue to point to his influence as a crucial radicalizing factor: the Tsarnaev brothers, who set off pressure-cooker bombs built to specifications published in Awlaki’s Inspire magazine at the Boston marathon in 2013, killing three and maiming many more; the Kouachi brothers, who killed a dozen people in their armed assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last year; and Syed Farook, who, with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a luncheon meeting in San Bernardino, California, last December, killing 14. All turned out to be dedicated fans of the American cleric.

It was Awlaki’s sinister appeal that first made me curious about this man who had spent many happy, successful years in the United States before turning on the land of his birth. I had been writing on terrorism and counterterrorism since 9/11, and the story of his extraordinary life and death offered a way to explore two persistent puzzles: how a person becomes a terrorist, and why so much the United States has done in the name of counterterrorism has backfired, playing into the hands of the enemy. I visited the American mosques where Awlaki’s blend of perfect Arabic and colloquial English appealed to Muslims across generations. I talked to government officials who had developed the , expanded it on Obama’s orders, and advised him on how to handle Awlaki. And I reported in Yemen, which was then experiencing a rash of kidnappings and beginning a descent into civil war, to talk with Awlaki’s family, tribal leaders, and others who knew him.

My research was replete with surprises. I discovered that during Awlaki’s adolescence in conservative, devout Yemen, he showed little interest in religion. It was only after his arrival at Colorado State University, away from his family on a wintry campus, that he first embraced his faith with the fierceness of a fresh convert. His Saudi roommate memorably described Anwar’s sudden transformation from partying freshman to puritanical scold, outraged by American television.

I also uncovered the real reason Awlaki fled the United States in 2002, abandoning overnight a thriving career that was turning him into a national voice for American Muslims. He had been tipped off, it turned out, to the fact that the FBI knew all about his regular visits to prostitutes in Washington hotels, a flagrantly hypocritical habit that he was terrified might be publicly exposed. I learned of the family pressure that subsequently prompted him to consider one conventional profession after another, finding no success, and always returning to an increasingly radical stance as a preacher.

Pondering the second major character of my book, President Barack Obama, I was struck by the curious parallels with Awlaki’s early life. Both men had been born to fathers of Muslim backgrounds who came to the United States as students. Both were then taken overseas by their families to live in Muslim countries. Both returned to the United States, where their unusual upbringings led each man to a sort of identity crisis. Obama embraced America. Awlaki rejected it. And the president ultimately ordered one of the most elaborate manhunts in American history to find the terrorist.

The armed drone became the third major character in the book. In it, I found a classic instance of how technology drives policy. The Bush and Obama administrations had demonstrated that the United States could kill a distant enemy without putting Americans at physical risk (though the psychological toll for drone operators has turned out to be a very different matter). If Obama had ordered a risky capture mission, and U.S. commandos had been killed, the political outcry would have been instantaneous: How could the president have passed up the safe option of the drone?

To this day, there has still been nothing like a full public debate over whether the president exceeded his constitutional powers in ordering the execution of even the most dangerous of American citizens. It took me four years and a lengthy court fight to get redacted copies of the Justice Department’s legal opinions authorizing his killing. Two lawsuits filed by his father, Nasser al-Awlaki, were dismissed without addressing the substance of the matter.

My immersion in the life of one terrorist, and in the government’s lethal response, gave me a richer sense of the defining conflict of the past 15 years — the ideological challenge from jihadism — and the government’s relentlessly militarized response. An alternate title I considered for my book was Hellfire, a word with a revealing dual meaning. Hellfire was the doom that Awlaki endlessly preached about, the fate he predicted for all who failed to accept his grim brand of Islam. It was also the name of the U.S. missile that killed him.

If language is a clue, both sides in this baffling, asymmetrical war believe that God is on their side. Such apocalyptic stakes appeal to young believers like Abdirizak Warsame, young men who are looking for a cause and, in the seductive voice of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, believe they have found one.

Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Contributor