A U.S.-born Muslim cleric noted for his eloquence, intelligence and fluency in English is a key link in a chain that connects several recent jihadist attacks and attempts in the United States — and perhaps the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults as well.
Now believed to be hiding in Yemen, 39-year-old Anwar al-Awlaki can be seen worldwide on Web videos. His talks are widely considered the most influential source of jihadist inspiration to English-speaking audiences.
Awlaki owes his American-accented, idiomatic English and familiarity with U.S. popular culture to long spells in the United States. Born in 1971 in Las Cruces, N.M., where his father was studying agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, Awlaki moved to Yemen with his family at the age of 7, then returned to the United States at 18 to study engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. After dropping out, he became a full-time imam in several U.S. cities, departing the country for Britain in 2002.
Even before the age of Internet video, Awlaki's skill in transmitting the militant Islamist message was evident to those who heard him. “He was the main man who translated the jihad into English,” said Abu Yahiya, 27, a Bangladeshi-British student who attended Awlaki's lectures in 2003 in London.
The Obama administration has placed Awlaki on a list of terrorists to be captured or killed, national security officials have said. He “has proven that he is extraordinarily dangerous, committed to carrying out deadly attacks on Americans and others worldwide,” Stuart Levey, Treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in July. “He has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism — fund-raising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.”
Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, a former agriculture minister and university chancellor in Yemen, has asked the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights to try to block killing Awlaki without a trial.
Former imam Anwar al-Awlaki meets with Patricia Morris, a neighbor of his Falls Church, Va., mosque who organized a vigil of support after the 9/11 attacks. (Getty Images/The Washington Post/T. Woodward)
“Targeting Americans for execution without any form of due process … is fundamentally un-American,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. The groups had also objected to being forced to apply for a Treasury Department license to represent Awlaki, a step required by his designation as a “global terrorist.” They were granted the license.
The assessment that Awlaki now plays an “operational” role apparently grew out of the investigation of the failed 2009 Christmas Day airliner bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian who had been studying in Yemen.
In February, The New York Times reported that Awlaki told a Yemeni journalist of having met with Abdulmutallab. “Umar Farouk is one of my students; I had communications with him,” Awlaki said on a recording to which Times correspondent Robert F. Worth listened. “And I support what he did, as America supports Israel's killing of Palestinians, and its killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He also said, “I did not tell him to do this operation, but I support it.”
Previously, Awlaki had had e-mail exchanges with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 military personnel in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. And the FBI reports that Zachary A. Chesser, the suburban Washington 20-year-old arrested in July after allegedly trying to join Somali jihadists, acknowledged e-mail correspondence with Awlaki as well.
Chesser told an agent “that Awlaki inspires people to pursue jihad,” Special Agent Mary Brandt Kinder said in a July 21 affidavit filed when Chesser was taken into custody. “He told her that he sent Awlaki several e-mail messages and that Awlaki replied to two of them.” The contents of the messages were not disclosed.
Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square last May, also claimed that he'd been guided by Awlaki's Web-broadcast sermons, government sources have told reporters. “He [Shahzad] listened to him, and he did it,” a U.S. official told The New York Times.
Though Awlaki only became prominent in news accounts this year, he has been on security officials' radar screen for years. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, investigators going over the hijackers' trail in the United States noticed that two of them attended the Rabat mosque in San Diego where Awlaki was an imam. The two “reportedly respected Aulaqi [as the report spelled his name] as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him.”
Those two future hijackers, Hani Hamjour and Nawaf al Hazmi, then moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington. And so did Awlaki, who became imam of Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va. — the very mosque where the two of them prayed. It is also the mosque from which Awlaki reportedly spoke as a “moderate” Muslim leader.
The commission report reflected suspicion over his role, but the FBI had concluded that Awlaki's contacts with the two were coincidental. The New York Times has reported, based on commission records at the National Archives, that some investigators believed otherwise. “If anyone had knowledge of the plot, it would have been” Awlaki, an FBI agent told the commission. “Someone had to be in the U.S. and keep the hijackers spiritually focused.”
— Peter Katel