Anwar Al-Awlaki, American Internet Terrorist Pioneer and Plotter Killed in Yemen

With the death of al Awalki, the plotting of attacks and the Internet recruitment effort directed toward Western youth by radicals has suffered a significant blow, but the threat by no means has been completely eliminated.
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Anwar Al-Awlaki, 40, an influential English speaking New Mexico born radical Yemeni cleric who harnessed the Internet to promote violent Jihad, most recently on behalf of his terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been killed. His death reportedly came today through an aerial strike on his convoy in Yemen by American jets and drones with the support of the Yemeni government.

Yemen, whose president Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in an attack earlier this year, is a poor unstable country of 24 million on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The nation, in the midst of a civil war, is a hotbed of extremism. The Al-Qaeda affiliate group controls remote regions and the nation is also the ancestral home of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. AQAP, formed in January 2009, has been more effective in attempting and inspiring recent plots against the United States than its older, more well known parent organization and Al-Awlaki's death marks the most strategically important strike by the United States since Osama bin Laden's killing by an American team in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May.

He has been a target of the CIA and American military for some time and narrowly escaped a similar strike just days after Bin Laden's killing. Al-Awlaki was designated a global terrorist and marked for assassination by President Obama despite a previous unsuccessful federal court challenge and the fact he is an American born citizen. His death alone, while tactically critical, does not in itself decapitate AQAP's higher leadership or its critical bomb making capabilities. Another American born disciple of Al-Awlaki in AQAP, North Carolinian Samir Khan, a publisher of AQAP's English language recruitment magazine, Inspire, has also been killed, according to the Yemeni Defense Ministry.

Because of his command of English, his excellent rhetorical skills and his ubiquity online, al Awalki was arguably the most important inspirational figure to a small but growing new breed of Internet savvy disaffected young adults in the North America and Britain. Many, including Homeland Committee Chair Congressman Peter King, regarded him as more of a threat in recent years than even bin Laden himself, due to his recruitment of Western youth. As FBI director Robert Mueller told the Senate in September 2010, "The Internet has expanded as a platform for spreading extremist propaganda, a tool for online recruiting, and a medium for social networking with like-minded violent extremists, all of which may be contributing to the pronounced state of radicalization inside the United States."

In addition to Al-Awlaki's uncontroversial earlier lectures on religion, an array of his radical English language jihadist exhortations have been available online including on YouTube, on the now defunct websites and Revolution Muslim, the Internet essay compilation Jihad Recollections, the Internet magazine Inspire and in essays like the 2009 "44 Ways to Support Jihad" and "May Our Souls Be Sacrificed for You". DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate in February 2011, "The threat continues to evolve and in some ways the threat today may be at its most heightened state since the attacks nearly 10 years ago." National Counter Terrorism Center director Michael Leiter also told Congress during those same hearings that AQAP was the biggest threat and that the its violence embracing Inspire magazine "is spiffy." He said, "It's got great graphics and in some sense we think probably speaks to individuals who are like to be radicalized." The magazine appears to be the work of Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, the American techno whiz who wrote on the Revolution Muslim website before allegedly fleeing North Carolina for Yemen to help AQAP. Khan has also been reported to be killed in today's strike.

In 2003, Khan, the net savvy teenager created an influential al Qaeda support site called InshallahShaheed. He later became known to authorities for other pro al Qaeda postings on his own blog and then later on other English language sites, like the the now defunct Revolution Muslim. He was also a catalyst in the creation of uploading a series of English online extremist essays called Jihad Recollections. After his family moved to North Carolina he continued his radical web activities from his parents home, despite the notable disapproval of his father and the local Muslim community. He even consulted an attorney on how to post extremist material without running afoul of the law. Despite that one his websites was shut down and he lost his job at Convergys, a company that contracts with the federal government after a local WBTV newscast publicized his activities.

Since he left North Carolina for Yemen in the Fall of 2009, authorities believe Khan is behind al Qaeda's new slick online English magazine, Inspire which debuted in the Summer of 2010. The magazine's professional production values and youth oriented focus make it a cause for concern for federal authorities. There have been five editions that include such content as an interview with Anwar Awalki and an article entitled "How to make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," as well as other articles encouraging readers to "mow down" people with cars and how to destroy buildings. The bomb making instructions were allegedly hacked recently by British spies who replaced it with a recipe for cupcakes. It is believed that a federal grand jury is meeting in North Carolina to investigate whether there is enough evidence to indict Khan for aiding al Qaeda.

Al-Awlaki, who resided secretly in Yemen, was the first American to be targeted by the CIA for "targeted killing" assassination, including an unsuccessful U.S. drone strike in May. He considered himself to be the inspirational center of a movement at war with America:

I, for one, was born in the U.S. I lived in the U.S. for 21 years. America was my home. I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.

Al-Awlaki has been tied to at least fifteen terrorist plots including the:

  • October 2010 Printer bombs sent to United States from Yemen
  • April 2010 suicide bombing attempt on the life of UK Ambassador to Yemen Timothy Torlot;
  • May 2010 attempted car bombing of New York's Times Square by Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad;
  • May 2010 near fatal stabbing of British MP Stephen Timms by London University student Roshonara Choudry, 21;
  • December 2009 attempted plane "underwear" bombing over Detroit by Umar Abdul-Mutallab;
  • November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting by Nidal Hassan that left 13 dead and 30 injured;
  • May 2007 Fort Dix, New Jersey plot to kill American solidiers;
  • August 2006 plot to bomb commercial airliners over the Atlantic;
  • June 2006 "Toronto 18" plot against the Canadian Prime Minister and Parliament.

The London Daily Telegraph stated, "Awlaki's lectures have been found in possession of almost every radical Islamist who has executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets." His lectures and sermons were in bookshops where two sets of London subway plotters met.

While he was born in America, he departed the country for Yemen at age 7, and stayed there until his return to the United States to pursue undergraduate and masters studies at state colleges in Colorado and California. He held positions at various mosques in Denver, San Diego, and Falls Church, Virginia. In California he was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes and plead guilty to related charges in 1996 and 1997. Al-Awlaki recorded non-extremist lectures about the faith that were sold on CDs at religious centers and bookstores in the United States and Britain.

Al-Awlaki's contacts, however, included various militants involved in terrorism support. Among those are at least two of the 9/11 hijackers who crashed a 757 into the Pentagon on September 11 killing 184 people. Saudi Arabians Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, were followers of Al-Awlaki in both California, where they took flying lessons, and Virginia prior to 9/11. After 9/11 he garnered the attention of the media as a moderate teacher of faith despite his comments that 9/11 was an Israeli conspiracy. In October 2001 he told the Washington Times, "We're totally against what the terrorists had done. We want to bring those who had done this to justice. But we're also against the killing of civilians in Afghanistan."

The following month he told PBS, "But we also cherish a lot of the values that are in America. Freedom is one of them; the opportunity is another. And that's why there is more appreciation among the American Muslims compared to the Muslims in other parts of the world." In 2002 Al-Awlaki departed the United States for Britain after American authorities stepped up their efforts against him. In 2004 he left Britain to return to Yemen. While in Yemen, with the consent of the United States, he was incarcerated for a year and a half. It was after that period that he became publicly radicalized and identified with Al-Qaeda.

Even though Al-Awlaki was under the scrutiny of authorities, he led prayers at a function at the Capitol, was an invitee to a Pentagon luncheon and appeared on NPR, PBS, and in the Washington Post. Whatever moderation he expressed earlier on, either truthfully or as a ruse, Al-Awlaki by the end of the decade devolved into Al-Qaeda's most effective recruiter of disaffected westerners. He may have also met Nidal Hassan while working at the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Virginia and in any event had email communications with him in the time leading up to his deadly rampage. His comments on Fort Hood stand in stark contrast to his preachings less than a decade earlier:

Nidal Hasan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a U.S. soldier. The U.S. is leading the war against terrorism, which in reality is a war against Islam.

Al-Awlaki's death is yet another example of how effective the United States has been in killing key Al-Qaeda figures over the last year. In addition to bin Laden, Al-Qaeda's second in command Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in August, and bin Laden's successor Egyptian born pediatrician Ayman al-Zawahiri is reportedly an assassination target as well. One thing is sure: the plotting of attacks and the Internet recruitment effort directed toward Western youth by radicals has suffered a significant blow, but the threat by no means has been completely eliminated.

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