Oh, yippie yay! The new Osama Bin Laden is wise to the Internet and speaks English. Just what we need….
You may not have heard of him before – but this is the new face of international terrorism. His name is Anwar al Awlaki – and unlike Osama bin Laden, who has not been seen in public for many years, he is loud, obvious and very dangerous. If there is an attack any time soon in London or in another Western capital, the chances are that Awlaki will be behind it. The CIA has put him on their hit-list of assassination targets, and in a rare speech on Thursday, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, name-checked Awlaki as the West’s Public Enemy No 1.
But he is not a gun-toting terrorist warlord like bin Laden. Awlaki, 39, is a preacher, broadcasting his Islamist ideology in sermons on the internet. The web gives him a global reach – literally into the bedrooms of disenchanted and gullible young Muslims who may already have been radicalised by an extremist imam or friend. For the intelligence services, this poses a dangerous new threat because it is so hard to keep under surveillance. Plotters meeting can be watched and followed; but if the conspiracy is internet-based, with would-be terrorists acting alone simply because they have heard Awlaki’s call to jihad on their PC, the chances of stumbling upon it are reduced.
The first time that many people heard Awlaki’s name was at the turn of the year. It is said that he recruited and mentored Umar Abdulmutallab, the young African who attempted to blow up a plane carrying hundreds of passengers over Detroit on Christmas Day, by detonating a device in his underpants. However, Awlaki has been on Western intelligence’s radar for some years, as his connections with terrorist plotters, including the September 11 hijackers and the July 7 London bombers, gradually became apparent.
Far from emerging like an Old Testament prophet from the mountains of Arabia, Awlaki is an American citizen. He was born, somewhat incongruously, given his brand of radical Islam, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. His father, a Yemeni, moved there in 1971 with his wife to attend the state university where he received a master’s degree in agricultural economics. In 1978, when Awlaki was seven, the family moved back to Yemen where his father served as agriculture minister. Aged 20, Awlaki returned to the US in 1991 where he studied civil engineering at Colorado State University. He later lived in San Diego, where he obtained an MA in education, and then studied for a doctorate in Washington.
During this period, though not an Islamic scholar nor a trained imam, Awlaki began to take a greater interest in religion and politics, possibly linked to a trip to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. He began to acquire a reputation as a firebrand preacher at various mosques, though his devout image was sullied by several arrests for soliciting prostitutes.
Increasingly, he came under the influence of radical Islamists, notably the Yemeni, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an ally of Osama bin Laden. He allegedly worked for a charitable organisation that the FBI believed was a front for funneling money to terrorists. Some of the September 11 hijackers reportedly respected Awlaki as a religious figure and two of the hijackers who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon building attended a mosque where he preached.
His apparent connection to the September 11 attacks was one of many embarrassments for the FBI. Awlaki was under investigation in 1999, but the agency concluded he was not a danger and shut down the operation a year later. After the September 11 attacks, the FBI interviewed Awlaki four times, and one detective told the 9/11 Commission that he believed he “was at the centre of the 9/11 story”. It is believed that he kept the hijackers “spiritually focused”.
Despite the FBI’s suspicions, Awlaki was able to return to Yemen in 2002. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he later turned up in London, where he stayed for two years, speaking at conferences hosted by British Muslim organisations. However, he did not come to MI5’s notice until after he returned to Yemen in 2004. It was about then that Awlaki made the transition from preacher to operational terrorist mastermind, using his charismatic appeal and jihadi rhetoric to fire up potential recruits.
He speaks perfect English, unlike many al-Qaeda leaders, which gives him a broader appeal. He also encourages his followers to think about mounting small-scale attacks that can cause widespread fear without always trying to stage a September 11-style “spectacular” which risks alerting the authorities.
As Evans said: “His influence is all the wider because he preaches and teaches in the English language, which makes his message easier to access and understand for Western audiences. There is a real risk that one of his adherents will respond to his urging to violence and mount an attack in the UK, possibly acting alone and with little formal training.”
Awlaki is best known for “Constants on the Path of Jihad”, a series of lectures available on popular internet forums, such as YouTube, where he has 1,900 videos. He reads the Arabic text and translates what he has read into English, offering his commentary on what the text means for Muslims. He maintains that violent jihad is an obligation for every Muslim. His lectures have been found in possession of almost every radical Islamist who has executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets.
They include the July 7 bombers in London, who used to meet in a bookshop that sold lectures by Awlaki. Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas last November, had asked for Awlaki’s advice in emails about a suicide attack. There is evidence that he had direct contact with the Canadian-based terrorists known as the Toronto 18 and court records show that three out of the five men convicted for plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, were inspired by Awlaki’s lectures and believed they contained a fatwa to strike in the US.
It is the accessibility of Awlaki’s message on the internet that most alarms intelligence chiefs and the fact that his centre of operations marks a shift in the centre of gravity of al-Qaeda from Pakistan/Afghanistan towards Yemen and east Africa. MI5 has seen a surge in its casework related to Yemen – the headquarters of al-Qaeda’s Arabian peninsula affiliate. In April, the CIA named Awlaki as a specially designated global terrorist, which effectively places him on an international hit-list as someone who has declared war on the West.
He may not have the vaulting ambitions of Osama bin Laden to cause massive carnage; but unlike the reclusive al-Qaeda leader, he is a clear and present danger.