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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Measuring Awlaki's Influence

Joshua Foust commented today on Jihadology about this recent piece in Foreign Policy about Anwar Awlaki. You should read them first, although you'll probably get the gist if you plunge right in.

Foust raises a number of good points in his post, which questions the first article's thesis that Awlaki is "the most persuasive supporter of jihad for Muslims in the West," claiming it is impossible to show evidence of ideology's role in jihadism. Here's what I think is the key statement in Foust's commentary:
We react to our environment, we respond to peer pressures, to community norms and signals, to physical and social constraints on behavior, and so on. Ideology can, potentially, be one of those contributing factors — as a means of signaling and of establishing justification for certain behaviors. But to say that ideology causes behavior is difficult if not impossible to prove — not only can we never get inside someone’s head to say, conclusively, why they did something, but we know, from neuroscience, that people cannot explain their own behavior consistently. And still, you’re left with the lingering question of why this specific person reacted against ideology while the thousands of others who were exposed to it did not.

At best, ideology is a woefully incomplete explanation for why terrorists chose to commit terror. But to argue that it is so important requires a standard of evidence that is, in practical terms, impossible to achieve.
Persuasion, especially as an absolute, is not clearly quantifiable. People are extremely complicated and most bring pre-existing conditions to their decisions, as Foust points out here and as I explore in (shameless plug alert) my forthcoming book on American jihadists.

But I don't think we have to throw up our hands and surrender on the question of trying to understand or prioritize the role of ideology, or at least of ideologues, in shaping the behavior of jihadists (among other demographics).

"Influence" might be the better word. We see evidence of influence when we see that a person has a hard drive or iPod full of Awlaki lectures. That doesn't mean Awlaki is the sole reason for that person's behavior but it does mean that person has been consuming Awlaki's content.

If influence is too fuzzy, then we can further reduce the question to presence -- does Awlaki have a presence in the person's media consumption?

When you frame the question this way (and it's more than a semantic distinction), there is plenty of hard evidence to look at.

For American jihadists specifically, Western jihadists more generally, and now Arabic-speaking jihadists, Awlaki has an overwhelming presence and/or influence, as documented by the repeated appearance of his material on the hard drives of people arrested for terrorism offenses, the posting of his material on jihadist Web forums and its prominence, and the posting and re-posting and analysis of his material on pro-jihad blogs.

Terrorism suspects who kept copies of Awlaki's work lying around include Zach Chesser, Faisal Shahzad, "Jihad Jane" and her comrades in arms, Roshonara Choudhry, the Fort Dix Six, Samir Khan, Emerson Begolly, Paul and Nadia Rockwood, and many, many more. Some, such as underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, Chesser and Choudhry, specifically said Awlaki influenced them. Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan reached out to Awlaki asking fo advice about the morality of his actions.

Ideologically, I think many would agree that Awlaki is not a trailblazer. He hasn't introduced anything particularly new or sophisticated to the genre. Most of his jihad-oriented work consists of condensing, translating and explaining the work of others, but also in making older works relevant to modern-day consumers.

There is a robust (and much-needed) debate in the terrorism studies community about exactly how important Awlaki is and why. Most observers would agree that Awlaki benefited greatly from inflated statements about his importance in 2009 and 2010, and he has clearly become more important in the last year because of U.S. government attention -- in the form of the "kill order" issued by the Obama administration. But none of that negates Awlaki's presence among jihadists.

Ultimately, Awlaki clearly commands a significant audience among jihadists, and it's hard to argue that he doesn't wield significant influence with this audience. Awlaki is not always be the trigger-man, as Foust might put it, but he clearly did serve in something like that role for Abdulmutallab and Hasan.

If virtually every Western jihadist is listening to Awlaki's lectures obsessively, then something significant is going on. Call it influence, persuasion or presence, but Awlaki is an increasingly important part of the jihadist movement, and there's plenty of evidence to support that notion.

AFTERTHOUGHT: With all the evidence we do have about Awlaki's presence, what we lack is a basis for comparison. We know Awlaki is on the hard drives of terrorists because the Justice Department tells us so. What they don't tell us (consistently) is what else those hard drives contain. Adam Gadahn videos? Abdullah El Faisal audios? Abu Mansour Al Amrikee? Omar Bakree Muhammad?

What about Yousef Qaradawi? Don't forget Awlaki's corpus of work is dominated by non-jihadist material which would be of interest to converts. Which lectures are they finding on these computers?

One would hope that the continual identification of Awlaki is due to the volume, content and frequency of his work appearing on drives, but certainly it's possible that a comparative study would show us something surprising. Hey, FBI, I'd sure be interested in seeing something like that!

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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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