Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- Was it mere coincidence that brought together the troubled young Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab and the Yemeni hard-line cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, or was it a bigger plot that gathered these two individuals whose only similarities seems to be their privileged upbringing and their embrace of extremism and fundamentalism?
US anger over the Fort Hood shootings-which involved a US officer of Palestinian origin, Maj Nidal Malik Hasan killing 13 of his colleagues-was yet to subside before the name of hard-line Yemeni fundamentalist Anwar al-Awlaki appeared again in connection with the attempt by Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a US airliner during its flight from Amsterdam Airport to Detroit Airport on Christmas 2009. It later emerged that Al-Awlaki was not only connected to Maj. Nidal Hasan and Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda as well.
Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico in the United States to Yemeni parents. At that time, Anwar’s father was studying agriculture at a US university. After completing his studies, he returned to Yemen and assumed a number of administrative and academic posts, until he became the president of Sanaa University, which was then the only university in (North) Yemen. He then became minister of agriculture. When Al-Awlaki’s father returned to Yemen, Anwar was 7 years old, and at that time could hardly speak Arabic.
In Sanaa, Anwar al-Awlaki attended the prestigious Azal private school, where his peers included the sons of presidents, ministers, senior officials, and businessmen. After that Anwar returned to the United States to study. He graduated in 1994 from Colorado State University, and then he obtained a Master’s degree from St Diego State University in California. However, after the 11 September 2001 events he was not able to continue his postgraduate studies in the United States because of the negative atmosphere that prevailed over the United States toward Muslims; therefore, he left for Britain, and then for Yemen, before returning to the United States.
Said Ubayd al-Jamhi, Yemeni writer specializing in Al-Qaeda affairs, says that al-Awlaki tried to continue his studies to obtain a PhD in Britain, but his difficult financial situation prevented this, and therefore he returned to Yemen in 2003. Al-Jamhi told Asharq Al-Awsat that Al-Awlaki turned into an Islamic preacher in the mosques before he was arrested and put in a Yemeni prison for months on a terrorism-related charge. On the basis of the same charge, Al-Awlaki was put in a Japanese prison between 2006 and 2007.
Al-Jamhi attributes to Dr Nasser al-Awlaki, father of Sheikh Anwar, who refused to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat, that his son is innocent of the charge of terrorism, and that he is not like Osama Bin Laden, as he is merely an Islamic caller. Dr Nasser al-Awlaki also says that his son became more fundamentalist after his imprisonment in Japan, and he calls for giving him a chance to restore his son to normal life, and to bring him down from Al-Kur Mountains in Shabwa Governorate in which he lives with a number of his supporters.
Here in Yemen, there are popular claims about a link between Anwar al-Awlaki and Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, a well-known Yemeni Islamic caller and the president of Al-Iman University, whom the US Administration accuses of financing terrorism, and who is on the UN list concerned with this issue. Some say that Al-Zindani is the one who polarized Anwar into the world of hard-line fundamentalism.
Recently, Al-Zindani denied the existence of any link between Al-Iman University and Al-Awlaki, whether as a student or as a teacher. However, Al-Jamhi stresses to Asharq Al-Awsat, “It has been proved that Anwar al-Awlaki delivered lectures at Al-Iman University about Islamic history, the history of Andalusia, and other subjects.”
Al-Jamhi talks about the religious address of Anwar al-Awlaki; he says that his address is a Salafi one that “leans toward jihad,” but Al-Jamhi does not confirm Al-Awlaki’s links to Al-Qaeda, because “a direct link to Al-Qaeda Organization is done through what is known as a pledge of allegiance, which is in its Salafi sense a pledge of obedience and subjugation to an Amir who gives the orders and bans,” Al-Jamhi continues, “and not, as it seems, the Al-Qaeda Organization.”
In the United States accusations are mounting against Anwar al-Awlaki, suggesting that he recruited Nidal Malik Hasan, and encouraged him to kill his colleagues. In Yemen, the authorities say that Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab met Al-Awlaki in Shabwa before he left Yemen to carry out his failed suicide operation attempt. If Al-Awlaki’s links to Nidal, Abdulmutallab, and perhaps others, is proven, then it seems that his use of the English language enabled him to communicate with them, especially via the Internet. However, does Al-Awlaki have this polarization ability?
The answer is yes. This is according to the researcher Al-Jamhi, who published a book about the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen. Al-Jamhi says that Anwar al-Awlaki has the “charisma” and has the ability “to attract; his religious address is mixed with politics and relies on tickling the sentiments.” Al-Jamhi uses as proof of Al-Awlaki’s possession of these qualities in his ability to attract Nidal Malik Hasan, despite the latter’s military mentality, and his cultural background as a psychiatrist, and hence Al-Awlaki “was able to program the man’s mind, which is a major success, and which means that he is not an ordinary man.”
However, there are missing links, and even mysterious parts in the life of al-Awlaki, the intelligent young man who moved up to the second-year class in his primary school only months after joining the first-year class, because of his distinction. This distinction made him one of the best students in the Yemeni Republic in the General Certificate of Secondary Education in the academic year 1988-1989. This brings up questions about the reasons that made Anwar abandon his distinguished professional life, and turn to Islamic studies. How was he able to turn into an Islamic caller of this type, and write books, publications, and Islamic call recordings? How did he turn into a hardliner, despite the fact that he studied in the center of Zubayd city in Tuhamah, a city known for knowledge and moderation, and that has never before produced any fundamentalists? How did he become an Islamic caller despite his young age and within a few years only?
There are those who are trying to give answers to some of these questions and to other questions that – undoubtedly – are going through the minds of many people. One of these people is a Yemeni writer who attributes Anwar al-Awlaki’s focusing on the Islamic call to “what he witnessed of non-Islamic behavior by the Muslim youths in the western countries. Also there is another important reason, namely the killing and destruction inflicted upon Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, and others.” This is according to the writer, who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on the condition of anonymity, stating only that he is close to Anwar al-Awlaki, who toured US mosques after he studied Islamic Dogma under many Ulema in the United States, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
The Washington Post recently published an interview with Al-Awlaki conducted by a Yemeni journalist close to him named Abdul-Ilah Haydar al-Shaai. This was the first interview with Al-Awlaki after the Fort hood massacre. At that time he said that he neither ordered nor exerted pressure on Nidal to harm US citizens, but he considered himself to be trusted by the psychiatrist. In the interview Al-Awlaki also revealed that he knew about Nidal’s unease about continuing his service in the army, and he knew that through the e-mails sent by Nidal to him. Al-Awlaki admitted that he played a role in Nidal becoming religious eight years earlier when he attended one of Al-Awlaki’s lectures in the Dar-al-Hijrah Mosque in North Virginia.
The Washington Post contacted Abdul-Ilah to conduct the interview, and paid his traveling costs. On Sunday,
Abdul-Ilah allowed the Washington Post journalist to see the videotape of the Al-Awlaki interview, who was sitting at his laptop computer, reading his e-mails, listening to audio recordings, and speaking with an American accent about his correspondence with Nidal.
In its story about Al-Awlaki, the newspaper wrote that he previously worked in two mosques that were frequented by three of the culprits of the 11 September 2001 attacks, namely the Dar-al-Hijrah Mosque in Virginia and another mosque in California.
Despite the fact that many of the questions about al-Awlaki’s personality remain unanswered at the moment, what is clear is that Anwar al-Awlaki is now at the top of the list of wanted individuals by the United States and Yemen for terrorism-related activities. He is wanted dead or alive, as indicated by the air bombing carried out by Yemen’s air force last month on the Rafd area in the Shabwa Governorate, and in which at least seven members of Al-Qaeda were killed. It emerged later that the primary target of the bombing was Anwar al-Awlaki, who took shelter in the Al-Kur Mountains in order to seek the protection of his tribe (Al-Awalik) and to exploit the difficult topology of the region so that he would not be reached easily.
This young man, to whom the doors of prosperity and happiness were open in Yemen on the basis of his education, culture and his father’s status in society, today is a fugitive wanted by the Yemeni security organizations, and targeted by aircraft missiles in order to avenge the US soldiers in Fort Hood Base, and other places. Will the Yemeni “Tora Bora” Mountains protect him?
Al-Awlaki’s father says that his son is not a terrorist. He stresses in recent press statements that Anwar is protected by tribes and that if he appeared in any way that would constitute a danger to his life. The father does not know whether the Yemeni and US authorities will give him a chance to prove Anwar’s innocence of what is attributed to him, namely incitement to murder.
Al-Awlaki’s family is suffering a great deal because of the situation with Anwar and is being harassed by the local media, which upsets Al-Awlaki’s father very much a member of the family confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat.
Observers think that there is a weak ray of hope for Anwar al-Awlaki and people like him to return to normal life, and to avoid being killed or imprisoned. It is in responding to the call by President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressed to the members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen to lay down their arms and sit down at the table of intellectual dialog, as it happened some years ago through the intellectual dialog committee, which was presided over by Judge Hamud al-Hattar, the current Yemeni minister of Islamic trusts.
However that seems unlikely with the Yemeni authorities declaring an “open war” on Al-Qaeda after the United States pointed an accusing finger at Yemen saying that it had become a “safe haven” for Al-Qaeda after Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of this, the Yemeni Government’s methods and policies in dealing with Al-Qaeda have changed; in the past, Yemeni security organizations would try to arrest suspected members of Al-Qaeda; today they have resorted to hunting them down directly, and killing them on land or by air, guaranteeing an unknown fate for the “young imam.”