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Friday, September 30, 2011

Anwar Awlaki Killed

The most wanted American in Al Qaeda, Anwar Al Awlaki, was reportedly killed in Yemen.

The details of his death are uncertain, and this is not the first time he has been reported killed.

So far, three claims have surfaced. First, that Awlaki was killed in a drone strike. Second, that he was killed by a Special Operations raid of some sort. Third, that he was killed by air strikes by either the Yemeni or U.S. governments.

J.M. Berger for Foreign Policy: Gone But Not Forgotten, Awlaki's Legacy

Awlaki was, in many ways, a unique figure in the jihadist pantheon. Born in the United States and raised mostly in Yemen, he was fluent in both English and Arabic. He rose to prominence as a mainstream Muslim speaker, winning substantial acclaim for his translation and commentary on stories from the Quran and hadith.

Awlaki was rightfully praised for his command of American idiom and ability to process Islamic content for Western audiences by drawing on his knowledge of Western pop culture. But his real strength as a preacher was storytelling. Awlaki took stories from ancient sources and embellished them, breathing live into tales that had often been passed down only in skeletal form.

His mainstream success accentuated the danger created by his public shift to extremism. Awlaki was widely loved by English-speaking Muslims around the world. The evidence strongly suggests that he was involved in extremist networks even as a young man, but to the public, he was the very face of devotional Islam. He was cited in U.S. media for his moderate statements even as he made much more radical statements behind closed doors.

In 2000 and 2001, Awlaki and his followers provided significant assistance to at least three of the September 11 hijackers, helping them find apartments, drive around the country and obtain IDs suitable for use in boarding an airplane. The evidence suggests this help was provided knowing that the men were Al Qaeda operatives, if not with specific knowledge of the plot. One of the hijackers described Awlaki as "a great man" and his "spiritual leader."

From 2002 on, Awlaki became a case study for how not to handle a suspected terrorist. Misstep after misstep from both government and media helped catapult Awlaki into global prominence as an extremist.

In October 2002, the U.S. arrested Awlaki while he was entering the country after traveling overseas but released him almost immediately under murky circumstances. Had he been arrested and prosecuted then, it might have saved American lives.

Awlaki left the country immediately after this near miss. His lectures became more and more overtly radical. Followers who had joined him for stories of the Islamic prophets could follow him as he "thought aloud" about the relationship between the West and Islam and concluded that they were fatally incompatible.

In 2004, Awlaki returned to Yemen, issuing his most famous extremist work, "Constants on the Path of Jihad." Although Constants is often attributed to Awlaki, it was not his original work. Based on an Arabic essay by one of the founders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the six hour lecture series outlined a strong argument in favor of jihad. Although Awlaki presented himself only as the translator, he extensively expanded on the original text, making it significantly more accessible and emotional. At least dozens of arrested extremists have listened to the lectures for inspiration.

Awlaki was arrested by Yemeni authorities in 2007 on the pretext of having given a fatwa approving a kidnapping by local militants. By most accounts, he emerged from prison even more heavily radicalized. Soon after, Awlaki created a blog where he praised jihadist groups such as Al Shabab. In 2009, he praised American military officer Nidal Hassan for killing American soldiers in a shooting spree at Fort Hood. Soon after, Awlaki was implicated as the teacher and guide to Omar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, who tried to bomb a Detroit-bound plane at Christmas with explosives smuggled on board in his underwear.

Awlaki also used e-mail to inspire and sometimes direct plots. He was among the most accessible and Internet-savvy extremists, personally corresponding with several suspects who were later arrested on various charges of terrorism.

A number of things happened after that. The United States leaked that Awlaki had been added to the CIA's authorized list of targets for assassination. That immediately led Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to issue a statement that the organization would defend Awlaki to the death. Soon after, AQAP issued a video interview with Awlaki in which he openly embraced Al Qaeda and its ideology, and soon after that, Awlaki issued an explicit call for Muslims living in the West to kill Americans under any circumstance.

Awlaki's standing in the jihadist world exploded in the wake of these developments, which were at least accelerated (if not wholly provoked) by the leak about Awlaki's targeting. Prior to the leak, Awlaki was someone with wide influence among Western extremists but without clear credibility among hardcore jihadists.

After the leak, Awlaki became public enemy number one. The media anointed Awlaki a "senior leader" or even "the top leader" of AQAP, a claim which was presented without evidence and which flew in the face of established reporting on AQAP's leadership.

Although some were skeptical of Awlaki having any role at all with AQAP, credible reports did support the view that Awlaki had become part of the group. Abdulmutallab reported being trained by Awlaki and the bomb in his underwear matched those created by AQAP's senior explosive expert. A subsequent bomb plot linked to Awlaki, the UPS bomb plot of 2010, also carried the technical hallmarks of AQAP. Reports from Australian media also described sightings of Awlaki at AQAP training camps.

On being adopted by AQAP, Awlaki stopped issuing audio and video in English, abandoning his most effective tool for inspiring violence, but he continued to issue statements in Arabic. More importantly, he oversaw the production of Inspire magazine, an English-language propaganda publication distributed online.

Inspire was the brainchild of American extremist Samir Khan (reportedly killed alongside Awlaki), who started it as a hobby project while living in the United States, then moved to Yemen and began publishing the magazine under the flag of AQAP, with exclusive content and oversight from Awlaki.

At the time of his alleged death, Awlaki was planning to issue a video answering questions from email correspondents. The most recent issue of Inspire, which did not feature any original content from Awlaki, also promised a forthcoming piece on the legitimacy of targeting civilians living in the West.

Both of these pieces could still surface, even if Awlaki is dead, and of course, his 100-plus hours of audio and video lectures will survive his death, likely becoming even more popular. It's worth remembering that Abdullah Azzam, killed more than 20 years ago, is still one of the most popular jihadist ideologues, whose videos still provide vast inspiration.

That "if" is an important consideration. If it turns out these reports are premature, Awlaki is uniquely positioned to capitalize. Inspire has already published articles touting Awlaki having survived a painfully close call with a drone strike in May 2011.

Inspire often employs mockery in the service of its propaganda, and Awlaki himself has a sharp sense of humor. If we have buried Awlaki too soon, we'll hear about it, and once again, our own missteps will make his legend grow.

Full story from CBS News

Intelwire coverage of Awlaki

The Atlantic: Awlaki and September 11

Foreign Policy: The Awlaki Myth

Letter from UK jihadist describes contacts with Awlaki

Is Inspire Magazine Uninspired?

For much more about Awlaki, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

Journalists seeking more information or comment on Awlaki can contact J.M. Berger here.

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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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