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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gadahn and Awlaki, Together At Last?

A slimmed-down Adam Gadahn is out with a new video that is just loaded with interesting elements (it can be seen here). Here's a somewhat hasty review.

The main focus of the video deals with the Mardin Conference, a gathering of Islamic scholars in Turkey earlier this year that sought to undercut much of the ideological basis of Al Qaeda's globalized declarations of war against the West.

Gadahn betrays the weakness of his position right at the start, saying that the young often realize the truth before the old and that laymen often recognize the truth ahead of the scholars.

Al Qaeda's leaders, including "Shaykh" Gadahn, have often sought to position themselves as the leading scholars of the day, diminishing competing messages on the basis that their own scholarship is superior. Saying that the laymen have outsmarted the scholars is a tacit admission that Al Qaeda's scholarship is lacking.

Gadahn seems to throw out a lot of the book here as far as conventional views of the ideological underpinnings of jihadist movements, saying that jihadists have "their own books of fiqh" (jurisprudence), and arguing the Mardin declaration is irrelevant to them since it's refuting a school of thought he claims is not used by Al Qaeda. (For more on this, check out Aaron Zelin's analysis on Jihadology.)

The graphics for this latest video are quite similar to recent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula releases, and the attack on the Mardin conference echoes Anwar Awlaki's recent article in AQAP's Inspire magazine. The video also featured clips of Awlaki from a recent AQAP release. All of this reflects the rising prominence of AQAP's operation and perhaps hints at coordination of media operations.

Awlaki clips were inserted into the speech without preamble -- i.e., Gadahn doesn't introduce the clip. It is possible someone from AQAP, or simply someone other than Gadahn, produced the video from raw footage of the speech and that additional clips were added by the video's editor, without Gadahn's knowledge.

Clips of AQAP's "underwear bomber" were also featured in the same manner. However, Omar Abdulmutallab was named by Gadhan in the video, and Awlaki wasn't.

In my opinion, and maybe it's a reach, these considerations muddy the impact of Awalki's Al Qaeda Central debut. Is this a strong endorsement by AQ Central? I don't think so. It feels like someone tacked the Awlaki material on as an afterthought.

Whatever the case, Gadahn's message is markedly similar to Awlaki's. Gadahn ends with an apparent endorsement of lone-wolfism, the strategic approach to jihad promulgated first by Abu Musab Al Suri and now promoted by Awlaki and his crew at Inspire. If Al Qaeda is really adopting the leaderless approach to jihad, there's no question that this is a losing strategy for them in the long run (if not sooner).

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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