From Reconciler to Jihadist: A New Mexico Cleric’s Journey

What Do We Really Know About America's Latest Bogeyman?
Anwar Awlaki

Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet of the New York Times have offered an in-depth profile of the history of New Mexico-born cleric Anwar Awlaki, and his nine year journey from an apparent idealist looking to reconcile Muslims worldwide with the United States, into cartoonish supervillain labeled “the new bin Laden” by the Washington Times. Of Awlaki, the NYT report says:

At first glance, it seemed plausible that this lanky, ambitious man, with the scholarly wire-rims and equal command of English and Arabic, could indeed be such a bridge. CD sets of his engaging lectures on the Prophet Muhammad were in thousands of Muslim homes. American-born, he had a sense of humor, loved deep-sea fishing, had dabbled in get-rich-quick investment schemes and dropped references to “Joe Sixpack” into his sermons. A few weeks before the attacks he had preached in the United States Capitol.

Nine years later, from his hide-out in Yemen, Mr. Awlaki has declared war on the United States.

“America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil,” he said in a statement posted on extremist Web sites in March. Though he had spent 21 of his 39 years in the United States, he added, “I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.”

His mix of scripture and vitriol has helped lure young Muslims into a dozen plots. He cheered on the Fort Hood gunman and had a role in prompting the attempted airliner bombing on Dec. 25, intelligence officials say. And last week, Faisal Shahzad, who is charged in the attempted bombing in Times Square, told investigators that Mr. Awlaki’s prolific online lectures urging jihad as a religious duty helped inspire him to act.

Awlaki’s status as an admired lecturer gained him a lot of points with the Muslim community, but even as he was condemning the 9/11 attacks he was drawing uncomfortable attention from the federal government. The NYT reports:

The F.B.I., whose agents interviewed Mr. Awlaki four times in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, concluded that his contacts with the hijackers and other radicals were random, the inevitable consequence of living in the small world of Islam in America. But records of the 9/11 commission at the National Archives make clear that not all investigators agreed.

Leading to the inevitable harrassment…

Alarmed about Mr. Awlaki’s possible Sept. 11 connections, a State Department investigator, Raymond Fournier, found a circuitous way to charge Mr. Awlaki with passport fraud, based on his false claim after entering the United States in 1990 that he had been born in Yemen.

A warrant was issued, but prosecutors in Colorado rescinded it, concluding that no criminal case could be made. Mr. Awlaki returned from a trip abroad in October 2002 — an act some colleagues say was evidence for his innocence of any 9/11 role — for what would prove to be his last stay in the United States.

During that trip, he visited Ali al-Timimi, a Virginia cleric later convicted for encouraging Muslims to join the fight against American troops in Afghanistan. Mr. Awlaki “attempted to get al-Timimi to discuss issues related to the recruitment of young Muslims,” according to a motion filed in his criminal case. Mr. Timimi wondered if Mr. Awlaki might be trying to entrap him at the F.B.I.’s instigation, his friends say.

But if Mr. Awlaki was cooperating with the government, it would have astonished his associates. As the American authorities rounded up Muslim men after 9/11, he had grown furious.

After raids in March 2002 on Muslim institutions and community leaders in Virginia, Mr. Awlaki led a chorus of outrage, noting that some of the targets were widely viewed as moderates.

“So this is not now a war on terrorism, we need to all be clear about this, this is a war on Muslims!” Mr. Awlaki declared, his voice shaking with anger. “Not only is it happening worldwide, but it’s happening right here in America that is claiming to be fighting this war for the sake of freedom.”

Disillusioned, Awlaki left the US for the last time, but he kept preaching, kept gaining notoriety. As his popularity grew, so did his criticism of US policy, and by 2006 the US was leaning on Yemen to act against him.

In mid-2006, after he intervened in a tribal dispute, Mr. Awlaki was imprisoned for 18 months by the Yemeni authorities. By his later account on his blog, he was in solitary confinement nearly the entire time and used it to study the Koran, to read literature (he enjoyed Dickens but disliked Shakespeare) and eventually, when it was permitted, to study Islamic scholarship.

Notably, he was enraptured by the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose time in the United States helped make him the father of the modern anti-Western jihadist movement in Islam.

“Because of the flowing style of Sayyid I would read between 100 and 150 pages a day,” Mr. Awlaki wrote. “I would be so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly.”

Two F.B.I. agents questioned him in the Yemeni prison, and Mr. Awlaki blamed the United States for his prolonged incarceration. He was right; John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Yemeni officials that the United States did not object to his detention, according to American and Yemeni sources.

But by the end of 2007, American officials, some of whom were disturbed at the imprisonment without charges of a United States citizen, signaled that they no longer insisted on Mr. Awlaki’s incarceration, and he was released.

“He was different after that — harder,” said a Yemeni man who knows Mr. Awlaki well.

It is at this point however that the picture becomes extremely blurry. Two and a half years later, Awlaki still isn’t being charged with anything, but in December the US backed a Yemeni assassination attempt against Awlaki. When that failed the US announced, in April, that Awlaki had been put on the official CIA assassiation list, the first time an American citizen was publicly targeted for summary execution.

The New York Times article, unfortunately, doesn’t question this at all, but instead reports on him as a “lethal threat” who has “declared war on the United States”.

In reality the reasons for Awlaki’s targeting have never been publicly established. Officials insist that he isn’t been targeted for his criticism of US foreign policy, but they offer no specifics about what he has done beyond the criticism. It still seems that he hasn’t done much of anything other than to be a thorn in the side of a pair of US administrations, certainly nothing officials have felt comfortable building a criminal case around. Public assassination, with its ill-defined basis in the law and no apparent oversight, seems much easier than charging him with anything.

Last 5 posts by Jason Ditz

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is news editor of Antiwar.com.