Anwar al-‘Awlaqi (often spelled “Awlaki”), the New Mexico-born U.S. citizen-turned radical Muslim preacher currently hiding in Yemen, has seen his stock rise among transnational jihadi-takfiris over the past ten months. Since being linked to accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army major accused of gunning down thirteen of his fellow soldiers last November, al-‘Awlaqi has received a great deal of attention from cyber militants, particularly those active on English-language jihadi-takfiri Internet forums and web sites.
He has also reportedly been connected to a number of other high-profile cases, the most infamous of which is the failed Christmas Day 2009 attempt by a young Nigerian, ‘Umar Farouq ‘Abdulmuttallab, to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. In late July, a 20-year-old Virginia man who converted to Islam in 2008, Zachary Chesser, was arrested and indicted for allegedly attempting to join the Somali insurgent-jihadi group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth). He reportedly had been in contact via e-mail with al-‘Awlaqi.
Once put forward as a moderate Muslim voice, al-‘Awlaqi is now believed to be an active associate, if not member, of Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen. His rise from a relatively little-known preacher at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia to a well-known jihadi-takfiri ideologue embraced by AQAP and sought out for assassination by the U.S. government has been remarkable. Al-‘Awlaqi’s notoriety has also benefited from the disproportionate amount of attention paid to him since his online contact with Hasan were made public late last year.
The preacher’s public persona and influence, both within the transnational jihadi-takfiri community and in the U.S. news media, have been shaped to a large degree by his extensive online footprint. Hundreds, if not thousands, of his audio and video lectures, as well as a number of his writings, are available on the Internet via YouTube and other web sites including, for a time, a personal blog. The topics of his sermons and lectures range from the historical (lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) to contemporary (jihad against the U.S. as a religious imperative of American Muslims).
After being under an intense media spotlight for months following Major Hasan’s shooting spree, Al-‘Awlaqi was publicly embraced by AQAP in late April in an audio message from the group’s leader, Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The AQAP leader pledged to defend the preacher and retaliate if either the U.S. or the Yemeni government attempted to harm him. A month later in late May, a “first” video interview in Arabic conducted by AQAP’s media outlet, the Al-Malahim (Epics) Media Foundation, with al-‘Awlaqi was released to jihadi-takfiri web sites. In the interview, he proudly takes credit for instructing Hasan and ‘Abdulmuttallab and praises their actions. The titling of the interview suggests that al-‘Awlaqi will be featured in future AQAP video productions.
In July, a glossy English-language e-magazine was released to jihadi-takfiri web sites, reportedly by AQAP. Entitled Inspire, the magazine is suspected of being the work of Samir Khan, a radical American Muslim currently in Yemen who has designed similar e-magazines in the past, possibly working in tandem with al-‘Awlaqi.
Al-‘Awlaqi, aided by his charismatic preaching and fluency in both Arabic and idiomatic English, has certainly become an influential jihadi-takfiri ideologue whose influence has inspired terrorist attacks inside the United States. However, as Princeton doctoral candidate and Yemen and AQAP specialist Gregory Johnsen has convincingly argued, he has also received a disproportionate level of attention considering his actual importance to AQAP.
Although AQAP’s senior leadership, al-Wuhayshi, deputy leader and former Guantanamo inmate Sa‘id al-Shihri, and military commander Qasim al-Raymi, receive little attention in comparison to that given to al-‘Awlaqi, all three are much more important to AQAP’s operational capabilities than the New Mexico-born preacher.
While it is important to recognize and counter the potential influence of al-‘Awlaqi on Muslims vulnerable to radicalization whose first language is English, it is equally important to not artificially exaggerate or inflate his importance to AQAP and other transnational jihadi-takfiris. To do so is to misunderstand and possibly misaddress the threat posed by these groups and charismatic ideologues like al-‘Awlaqi.