Saturday, October 1, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical American-born Muslim

SITE Intelligence Group, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Updated: Oct, 1 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical American-born Muslim cleric who became a leading figure in Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. He was killed there on Sept. 30, 2011 by a missile fired from an American drone aircraft.

Mr. Awlaki had been perhaps the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad against the United States, with his message carried extensively over the Internet. His online lectures and sermons had been linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki before the deadly shooting rampage on Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May, 2010, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.

The strike also killed a radical American colleague traveling with Mr. Awlaki who edited Al Qaeda’s online jihadist magazine. He was identified by Yemen's official news agency as Samir Khan, an American citizen born in Pakistan.

Many details of the strike were unclear, but one American official said that Mr. Awlaki, whom the United States had been hunting in Yemen for more than two years, had been identified as the target in advance and was killed with a Hellfire missile fired from a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The strike appeared to be the first time in the United States-led war on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that an American citizen had been deliberately targeted and killed by American forces.

In 2010, the Obama administration had taken the rare step of authorizing the targeted killing of Mr. Awlaki, even though he was an American citizen — a step that had provoked lawsuits and criticism from human rights groups. He had survived at least one earlier missile strike from an American military drone.

Those drone attacks had been part of a clandestine Pentagon program to hunt members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group believed responsible for a number of failed attempts to strike the United States, including the thwarted plot to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet on Dec. 25, 2009, as it was preparing to land in Detroit.

The American military had stepped up its campaign of airstrikes in Yemen earlier in 2011. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in July that two of his top goals were to remove Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s new leader after the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, and Mr. Awlaki. A senior administration official in Washington said the killing of Mr. Awlaki was important because he had become one of Al Qaeda’s top operational planners as well as its greatest English-language propagandist.


Mr. Awlaki, born in New Mexico in 1971, served as an imam in California and Virginia. He became the focus of intense scrutiny after he was linked through e-mails with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November 2009 and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2010. He also had ties to two of the 9/11 hijackers although the nature of association remains unclear.


In May 2010, Mr. Awlaki was mentioned by Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American man accused of trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Mr. Shahzad said he was inspired by the violent rhetoric of Mr. Awlaki.

The Obama administration's decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism. The notion that the government can, in effect, execute one of its own citizens far from a combat zone, with no judicial process and based on secret intelligence, made some legal authorities deeply uneasy.

Mr. Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, who contended that his son was not the terrorist the administration portrays him to be, filed a legal challenge to his son's inclusion on a list of people to be killed by American forces or agents without a trial. The lawsuit was dismissed on Dec. 7, 2010 by a federal judge who ruled that al-Awlaki's father did not have the authority to sue to stop the United States from killing his son.

In addition, the judge held that decisions to mount targeted killings overseas are a “political question” for executive officials to make — not judges. In the 83-page opinion, Judge John Bates of the District of Columbia district court acknowledged that the case raised “stark, and perplexing, questions” — including whether the president could “order the assassination of a U.S. citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization.”

In an earlier setback, in July the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control had announced that it was applying the designation of global terrorist to Mr. Awlaki. That blocked his assets and made it a crime for Americans to engage in transactions with him or for his benefit without a license. The human rights lawyers who filed suit on behalf of Mr. Awlaki's father challenged that regulation as well.

The Road to Jihadist

There were two conventional narratives of Mr. Awlaki's path to jihad. The first was his own: He was a nonviolent moderate until the United States attacked Muslims openly in Afghanistan and Iraq, covertly in Pakistan and Yemen and even at home, by making targets of Muslims for raids and arrests. He merely followed the religious obligation to defend his faith, he had said.

A contrasting version of Mr. Awlaki's story, explored though never confirmed by the national Sept. 11 commission, maintains that he was a secret agent of Al Qaeda starting well before the attacks, when three of the hijackers turned up at his mosques. By this account, all that changed after that was that Mr. Awlaki stopped hiding his true views.

A product both of Yemen's deeply conservative religious culture and freewheeling American ways, Mr. Awlaki hesitated to shake hands with women but patronized prostitutes. He was first enthralled with jihad as a teenager — but the cause he embraced, the defeat of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, was then America's cause too. After a summer visit to the land of the victorious mujahedeen, he brought back an Afghan hat and wore it proudly around the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins, where he studied engineering.

Later, Mr. Awlaki seems to have tried out multiple personas: the representative of a tolerant Islam in a multicultural United States (starring in a video explaining Ramadan); the fiery American activist talking about Muslims' constitutional rights (and citing both Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown); the conspiracy theorist who publicly doubted the Muslim role in the Sept. 11 attacks. (The F.B.I., he wrote a few days afterward, simply blamed passengers with Muslim names.)

All along he remained a conservative, fundamentalist preacher who invariably started with a scriptural story from the seventh century and drew its personal or political lessons for today, a tradition called salafism, for the Salafs, or ancestors, the leaders of the earliest generations of Islam.

Finally, after the Yemeni authorities, under American pressure, imprisoned him in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Awlaki seemed to have hardened into a fully committed ideologist of jihad, condemning non-Muslims and cheerleading for slaughter. His message became indistinguishable from that of Osama bin Laden — except for his excellent English and his cultural familiarity with the United States and Britain. Those traits made him especially dangerous, counterterrorism officials feared, and he flaunted them.

Family Ties to Yemen

Mr. Awlaki's American accent was misleading: born in New Mexico when his father was studying agriculture there, he had lived in the country until the age of 7. But he had spent his adolescence in Yemen, where memorizing the Koran was a matter of course for an educated young man, and women were largely excluded from public life.

After studying Islam in Yemen, Mr. Awlaki also pursued an American education, earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University and a master's in education at San Diego State.

His father, Nasser, was a prominent figure who would serve as agriculture minister and chancellor of two universities and who was close to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's authoritarian leader. Anwar was sent to Azal Modern School, among the country's most prestigious private schools.

He studied civil engineering in Colorado in preparation for the kind of technocratic career his father had pursued. Mr. Awlaki, a fan of Dickens, would later compare Thomas Gradgrind, the notoriously utilitarian headmaster in "Hard Times," "to some Muslim parents who are programmed to think that only medicine or engineering are worthy professions for their children," perhaps hinting at his own experience.

Some family acquaintances say tension arose between Anwar and his father over career choices. But in 1994, Mr. Awlaki married a cousin from Yemen, left behind engineering and took a part-time job as imam at the Denver Islamic Society.

Violence as Religious Duty

Mr. Awlaki had never been accused of planting explosives himself, but terrorism experts believe his persuasive endorsement of violence as a religious duty, in colloquial, American-accented English, helped push a series of Western Muslims into terrorism.

The F.B.I. had first taken an interest in Mr. Awlaki in 1999, concerned about brushes with militants that to this day remain difficult to interpret. In 1998 and 1999, he was a vice president of a small Islamic charity that an F.B.I. agent later testified was "a front organization to funnel money to terrorists." He had been visited by Ziyad Khaleel, a Qaeda operative who purchased a battery for Osama bin Laden's satellite phone, as well as by an associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheik, who was serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

Still more disturbing were Mr. Awlaki's links to two future Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. They prayed at his San Diego mosque and were seen in long conferences with the cleric. Mr. Alhazmi would follow the imam to his new mosque in Virginia, and 9/11 investigators would call Mr. Awlaki Mr. Alhazmi's "spiritual adviser."

The F.B.I., whose agents interviewed Mr. Awlaki four times in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, concluded that his contacts with the hijackers and other radicals were random, the inevitable consequence of living in the small world of Islam in America. But records of the 9/11 commission at the National Archives make clear that not all investigators agreed.

Concerns later focused on Mr. Awlaki's influence via his Web site, his Facebook page and many booklets and CDs carrying his message, including a text called "44 Ways to Support Jihad." Mr. Awlaki's current site,, went offline after he was linked to Major Hasan, apparently because a series of Web hosting companies took it down.

He left the United States in 2002 for London, where he addressed a rapt audience of young Muslims.

Unable to support himself, he returned to Yemen, where he spent 18 months in prison for intervening in a tribal dispute. He publicly blamed the United States for pressuring Yemeni authorities to keep him locked up and said he was questioned by F.B.I. agents there. After his release, in December 2007, his message became even more overtly supportive of violence.

In January 2010, Mr. Awlaki acknowledged for the first time that he met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the Dec. 25 airliner bomb plot, though he denied any role in the attack, according to a Yemeni journalist. Mr. Awlaki said he had "communications" with the Nigerian suspect in Yemen in the fall of 2009, according to the journalist, Abdulelah Hider Sha'ea.

From his hideout, Mr. Awlaki continued to send out the occasional video message, relying more on the hundreds of audio and video clips that his followers posted to the Web, a mix of religious stories and incitement, awaiting the curious and the troubled.

Mr. Awlaki broke his silence on the uprisings in the Arab world in March 2011, claiming that Islamist extremists had gleefully watched the success of protest movements against governments they had long despised. His four-page essay, titled “The Tsunami of Change,” countered the common view among Western analysts that the terrorist network looks irrelevant at a time of unprecedented change in the modern Middle East.