Web-Savvy American Imam, Who Inspires Jihadis Worldwide

38-year-old Imam Anwar al-Aulaki, son of a former agriculture minister in Yemen, inspires hundreds of jihadis over the internet, having turned the Web into a tool for jihadi indoctrination, reports The New York Times.  Al-Awalki
web savvy american imam who inspires jihadis...
PTI November 21, 2009 9:55 IST

38-year-old Imam Anwar al-Aulaki, son of a former agriculture minister in Yemen, inspires hundreds of jihadis over the internet, having turned the Web into a tool for jihadi indoctrination, reports The New York Times. 

Al-Awalki persuasively endorses violence as a religious duty in the name of jihad from his website anwar-alaulaki.com which has gone offline since the US army major psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan gunned down 13 people at Fort Hood army base, the report says. 

In nearly a dozen recent terrorism cases in the US,  Britain and Canada, investigators discovered the suspects had something in common: a devotion to the message of al-Awlaki. In his colloquial, American-accented English, the Yemeni Imam has helped push a series of Western Muslims into terrorism.

In 2006, a group of Canadian Muslims listened to al-Awlaki's sermons on a laptop a few months before they were charged with plotting attacks in Ontario to have included bombings, shootings, storming the Parliament Building and beheading the Canadian prime minister, the NYT report says.

In 2007, one of six men later convicted of plotting to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey was picked up on a surveillance tape raving about al-Awlaki's audio clips. “You gotta hear this lecture,” said the plotter, Shain Duka. Mr. Duka called the cleric's interpretation of Muslim duties “the truth, no holds barred, straight how it is!”

Last year, al-Awlaki exchanged public letters on the Web with Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group that has attracted recruits among young Somali-Americans living in Minnesota. The message from Al Shabaab praised the Imam as “one of the very few scholars” who “defend the honor of the mujahideen.”

“Allah knows how many of the brothers and sisters have been affected by your work,” it said.

 “Al-Awlaki condenses the al Qaeda philosophy into digestible, well-written treatises,” says Evan Kohlmann, a researcher in counterterrorism.  “They may not tell people how to build a bomb or shoot a gun. But he tells them who to kill, and why, and stresses the urgency of the mission.”

For at least a decade, counterterrorism officials have had a wary eye on al- Awlaki, an American citizen now living in Yemen. His contacts with three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, at mosques where he served in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., remain a perplexing mystery about the 2001 attacks, said Philip Zelikow, who was executive director of the national 9/11 commission.

But in recent years, concerns have focused on Awlaki's influence via his Web site, his Facebook page and many booklets and CDs carrying his message, including a text called “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”

Starting late last year, Major Hasan sought religious advice from Awlaki  in e-mail messages intercepted by American intelligence. He had seen  Awlaki preach at the Virginia mosque in 2001.

In July, the month Major Hasan was transferred to Fort Hood, Awlaki posted a blistering attack on his Web site denouncing Muslim soldiers who would fight against other Muslims, a conflict that preoccupied Major Hasan, who was facing deployment to Afghanistan.

“What kind of twisted fight is this?” Awlaki wrote on “Imam Anwar's Blog.” A Muslim soldier who follows orders to kill Muslims, he wrote, “is a heartless beast, bent of evil, who sells his religion for a few dollars.”

After the Fort Hood shootings,  Awlaki called Major Hasan a hero. “The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US Army,” he wrote on his blog, “is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”

The question of what to do about terror propagandists like Awlaki is complex. His writings, though they encourage violence, are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, says the NYT report.

Moreover, even as they fuel extremism, Web sites like his can be a valuable counterterrorism tool, because intelligence analysts use them to track those who, like Major Hasan, visit a site, post comments or e-mail its creators.

Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971, where his father, Nasser al-Awlaki, was studying agricultural economics. After studying Islam in Yemen, Anwar, too, pursued an American education, earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University and a master's in education at San Diego State.. While in San Diego, he was arrested for soliciting prostitutes, law enforcement records show.

At a San Diego mosque where he was an imam, al-Awlaki met two future hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. In early 2001, Awlaki moved to the Virginia mosque, attended by Hazmi and a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour. The 9/11 panel described the connection as suspicious. Law enforcement officials say they strongly doubted Awlaki knew of the plot, though they could not prove it.

While in the US, Awlaki presented a moderate public face. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, as imam at Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia, he told The New York Times that he would no longer tolerate “inflammatory” rhetoric. The article said  Awlaki “is held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.”

Johari Abdul-Malik, imam of the Virginia mosque, said  Awlaki's sermons were accessible, often witty explorations of Koran passages. “We could have all been duped,” he said. “But I think something happened to him, and he changed his views.”

One thing that happened, after he left the United States in 2002 for London and then Yemen, was eighteen months in a Yemeni prison. He has publicly blamed the United States for pressuring Yemeni authorities to keep him locked up and has said he was questioned by FBI agents there.

Since his release in December 2007, his message has been even more overtly supportive of violence. In “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” he showed a wry awareness of intelligence agencies' interest in him and his writings.

“The only ones who are spending the money and time translating Jihad literature are the Western intelligence services,” he wrote in English, “and too bad, they would not be willing to share it with you.”

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