London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Anwar al-Awlaki was one of Al Qaeda’s rising stars; his fingerprints could be found on terror plots from that of the Ford Hood shooting to the so-called Christmas Day bomb plot, however his star unexpectedly set on Friday when he was killed following a US drone attack on a convoy of cars traveling in the northern al-Jawf province of Yemen.
Al-Awlaki was an America-born, radical Islamist cleric who was viewed by many as one of the most charismatic Al Qaeda leaders, particularly since the death of Al Qaeda leader and founder Osama Bin Laden earlier this year. Al-Awlaki inspired and motivated a generation of Muslim youth, many from or living in the West. A native English speaker, al-Awlaki’s infamous online lectures have been viewed by intelligence agencies and analysts as a critical tool in Islamic radicalization. Al-Awlaki was also believed to have run Al Qaeda’s well-known English language online publication “Inspire”, which included calls to Jihad alongside instructions on how to manufacture explosives. The so-called “spiritual leader” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], Anwar al-Awlaki’s influence can and has been seen and felt on many of the most prominent Islamist terrorist attacks in recent years, including even the infamous 9/11 attacks.
US officials described al-Awlaki as a “recruiter and motivator” for Al Qaeda, and his use of social media and the internet to spread Al Qaeda’s violent ideology has been viewed as one of the most prominent reasons behind the terrorist organization’s continued presence, and the threat that Al Qaeda may represent in the future.
Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico on 22 April, 1971, to Yemeni parents. He left America for Yemen at the age of 7, only to return to Colorado in 1991 to attend college. He earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University, where he was President of the Muslim Student Association. His introduction to jihad came early, and he reportedly spend the summer of 1993 training – on vacation from university – with the Afghan mujahedeen who were fighting the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country.
However al-Awlaki, commonly referred to as radical cleric, had no formal Islamic training, his popularity lay in his eloquence and charisma, his ability to convey Al Qaeda’s message to the English-speaking world.
He developed an animosity towards the US and the West, and became a strong proponent of Jihadism and Takfirism; the controversial beliefs espoused by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb.
Al-Awlaki later served as Imam of a number of mosques in the US, namely the Denver Islamic Society’s Masjid Al-Noor, before moving on to the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami in San Diego, California, and then later the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Northern Virginia.
Two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, regularly attended al-Awlaki’s sermons at the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami, and al-Awlaki reportedly held a number of closed-door meetings with the two. The 9/11 Commission Report indicated that the two hijackers “reportedly respected [al-Awlaki] as a religious figure.”
Al-Hazmi, and another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour – who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon – attended his lectures at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, as well as Ford Hood shooter Nidal Hassan. Al-Awlaki’s contact details were also found by police in Hamburg, Germany, in the apartment of so-called 20th hijacker Ramzi Bin al-Shibh.
Al-Awlaki was interviewed four times in eight days following the 9/11 attacks, one detective reportedly told the 9/11 Commission that he believed that al-Awlaki was “at the center of the 9/11 story.” Whilst a separate Congressional Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks suspected al-Awlaki of being part of a support network for the hijackers.
In 2002, al-Awlaki left the US for Britain, where he spend several months giving a series of popular lectures to Muslim youth at mosques and universities. However he ultimately returned to Yemen in early 2004, moving to his ancestral home in the volatile southern Yemeni province of Shabwa. He began to lecture at the al-Imam University, a Sunni religious school in Sanaa that was headed by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, a radical cleric designated a terrorist by both the US and UN for his suspected links to Al Qaeda. Here al-Awlaki taught a number of suspected Al Qaeda militants, including John Walker Lindh AKA Abu Salayman al-Irlandi, the so-called “American Taliban.”
In August 2006, al-Awlaki was detained by the Yemeni authorities, reportedly for plotting to kidnap a US military attaché. He was imprisoned for 18 months, during which al-Awlaki himself claimed to have embraced even more radical views. Following his release from prison, he began to overtly support and incite violent jihad, calling on Muslims to “liberate” Iraq and Afghanistan from US forces.
Al-Awlaki was linked to the fatal shooting of 13 soldiers at Ford Hood, Texas, by an American Muslim soldier in November 2009. Not only had Ford Hood shooter Nidal Hassan previously attended al-Awlaki’s sermons at the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Northern Virginia, it also emerged that al-Awlaki had been giving him religious advice by e-mail just prior to the shooting. Following the operation, al-Awlaki described Major Nidal Hassan as a hero, telling Al Jazeera that “the operation brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one.”
Al-Awlaki also met with so-called Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, whilst he was studying Arabic at al-Imam University in Yemen in late 2009. Whilst Faisal Shahzad, the US-citizen of Pakistani origin who came close to carrying out a successful attack on Time Square, admitted to admiring al-Awlaki. Shahzad, who was described by US General David Petraeus as a “lone wolf” reportedly told law enforcement officials that he was a “fan and follower” of al-Awlaki.
Two months following the attempted attack on Time Square the US Treasury Department named al-Awlaki a “specially designated global terrorist”, blocking his assets and making it a crime for any American citizens to do business with him or on his behalf.
Following this, two suspected packages containing bombs and addressed to synagogues in Chicago were sent from Yemen. They were carried by plane and intercepted in the UK and Dubai. US officials traced this plot back to AQAP, and again linked it to the group’s alleged “spiritual leader”, Anwar al-Awlaki.
On 6 April 2010, the New York Times reported that US President Barack Obama had authorized the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, as he posed an imminent threat to the US and its citizens.
In late 2010, the Yemeni authorities began to try Anwar al-Awlaki in absentia, charging him with inciting violence against foreigners in connection with the killing of a French security guard in Yemen. At the time of his death, al-Awlaki was believed to be hiding in the mountainous governorates of Shabwa and Marib, under the protection of the powerful Awalik tribe that he belonged to.
On 30 September 2011, in the northern province of al-Jawf, two Predator drones fired Hellfire missiles at a vehicle containing Anwar al-Awlaki and three other suspected Al Qaeda members. This operation was reportedly carried out by US Joint Special Operations Command, under the direction of the CIA.
Following news of al-Awlaki’s death, US President Back Obama said “the death of al-Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate. He took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder Americans…and he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women, and children to advance a murderous agenda. [The strike] is further proof that Al Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.”