- Published on Friday, 13 May 2011 17:02
- Category: Literature
The following is an excerpt from "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam"(Potomac Books, May 2011), a new book on the history of American jihadists by J.M. Berger of Intelwire.com. Click here for more information. The excerpt was written before the death of Osama bin Laden and has been edited slightly for formatting purposes.
After he was publicly linked to the Fort Hood gun attack by Nidal Hasan and the "underwear bombing" of Christmas 2009 by Omar Abdulmutallab, coverage of Anwar Awlaki exploded.
A Nexis search showed seven stories mentioning Anwar Awlaki in major newspapers during 2007. In 2008, there were five stories. In 2009, there were 651 stories, almost all of which were published in November and December. In the first six months of 2010, there were 948, in addition to countless television and Internet stories.
The coverage took on an increasingly hysterical tone. Dozens of reports characterized Awlaki as “the next Osama bin Laden” and one of the most serious threats to the United States in years. In late 2009 the Obama administration put Awlaki on a list of high-value targets, authorizing U.S. covert operations to capture or kill the American citizen.
This wave of attention started before Awlaki had openly called for attacks on the United States. In March 2010, perhaps realizing he had nothing left to lose, Awlaki finally pulled the trigger and explicitly endorsed jihad in a way he had never before done in public.
An audio message released to jihadist Internet forums positioned him squarely on the side of terrorism—even as he continued to deny his connection to any previous attack. The speech was masterful and remarkably attuned to an American audience, invoking an almost Reaganesque sense of nostalgia before lowering the boom:
To the American people I say: Do you remember the good old days, when Americans were enjoying the blessings of security and peace? When the word “terrorism” was rarely invoked? And when you were oblivious to any threats?
I remember a time when you could purchase an airline ticket from the classified section of your local or college newspaper, and use it, even though it was issued to a different name, because no one would bother asking you for an ID before boarding a plane. No long lines, no elaborate searches, no body scans, no sniffing dogs, no taking off your shoes and emptying your pockets. You were a nation at ease.
But America thought that it could threaten the lives of others, kill and invade, occupy and plunder, and conspire, without bearing the consequences of its actions. 9/11 was the answer of the millions of people who suffer from American aggression. And since then, America has not been safe.
Awlaki mocked America’s inability to defeat the “mujahideen” of Al Qaeda and celebrated Nidal Hasan and Omar Abdulmutallab, characterizing the latter’s failure to accomplish his mission as a success because he almost succeeded. Awlaki laid out a “defensive” rationale for the actions of Al Qaeda as a response to U.S. “aggression,” citing Guantanamo Bay and the abuse of captives by U.S. soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He stated that Al Qaeda’s goal was to establish Islam “over all other” religions. Finally, he pointed the way forward:
I for one, was born in the US, I lived in the US for twenty-one years. America was my home. I was a preacher for Islam, involved in non-violent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq, and continued US aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the US and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that Jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim. [ . . . ]
The Muslim community in America has been witnessing a gradual erosion and decline in core Islamic principles, so today many of your scholars and Islamic organizations are openly approving of Muslims serving in the US Army, to kill Muslims, joining the FBI, to spy against Muslims, and are standing between you and your duty of Jihad.
Soon afterward, Awlaki was interviewed in video published online by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the first time he ever publicly associated with a terrorist organization. In July, AQAP began publishing an English-language magazine for aspiring jihadists, which Awlaki was said to oversee.
In November 2010, Awlaki went further still, releasing a video in Arabic unequivocally called for killing Americans. “Do not consult anyone in killing the Americans,” he said. “Fighting Satan does not require a [religious ruling]. It does not require consulting. It does not need a prayer for the cause. They are the party of Satan.”
THE MEASURE OF THE MAN
Awlaki’s status is nothing if not a moving target. When the Western media discovered him in late 2009, he was far more successful and influential among Muslims who are fluent in English or for whom English is a first language than he has with the Arabic-speaking Muslims who dominate the leadership of terrorist networks. His lectures and writings, beloved in the English zone, were rarely posted to the leading jihadist Web sites. Among hard-core jihadist ideologues and networked terrorists, he barely registered a blip.
Even as the U.S. media was throwing Awlaki a coronation, his terrorist protégés had mostly turned out to be embarrassing failures. (That is likely to change sooner or later, perhaps even during the space between this sentence being written and this book being published.)
But his status began to rise in April 2010, when U.S. officials revealed that Awlaki had been approved for targeted killing by the CIA. No American citizen had ever been added to the CIA’s target list, even though several other Americans held very important positions with Al Qaeda’s central operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No rationale for Awlaki’s unique status was offered to the public.
AQAP soon fired back with a statement in Arabic vowing to protect Awlaki from any U.S. attempt to capture or kill him. The interview followed quickly, and Awlaki began issuing statements in Arabic, which were enthusiastically received by the Arabic-speaking jihadist community. New fans began seeking out his older material, which was widely available from download sites and on both the Arabic and English language versions of YouTube.
At the end of October, AQAP planted two bombs in parcels and shipped them to the United States. The bombs were intercepted and defused before they reached their targets. Twenty days later, AQAP published another issue of its English-language magazine detailing the attack and its goals. One article, printed under the byline “Head of Foreign Operations,” was believed by some analysts to have been penned by Awlaki, suggesting he had settled into a formal role within the organization as a fully operational terrorist.
But is Awlaki “the next Osama bin Laden”?
It’s extremely important to understand Anwar Awlaki in context. There is no question that he is an important and dangerous figure who presents the United States with a serious and significant challenge. He has been directly involved in planning and executing terrorist attacks, and he has inspired a large number of would-be terrorists in the Western world.
Comparing him to bin Laden is dangerous, however, because it elevates Awlaki’s status based on a fundamental misunderstanding of each man’s role and capacity.
It’s certainly possible Awlaki was working for the core Al Qaeda organization before September 11, and it’s virtually certain he was working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before the relationship was officially announced. Yet there’s very little evidence that he held a position of significant authority in either group before 2010.
No evidence has emerged as of this writing to suggest that Awlaki has ever pointed a gun at a human being and pulled the trigger. The terrorist operations where he directly guided operatives have been underwhelming at best, embarrassing at worst. They can still cause chaos, of course, especially when the West is willing to mobilize thousands of people and millions of dollars in response to every new terrorist strategy it sees. But overall, Awlaki’s successes have owed more to Western failures than operational brilliance.
Now consider Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is far more influential than Awlaki simply as far as his preaching and ability to inspire. All of Awlaki’s jihadist adherents are also adherents of bin Laden, but the reverse does not necessarily apply, even with Awlaki’s recent gains.
Bin Laden doesn’t stop at getting people fired up. The Saudi kingpin of terror cut his teeth in combat against the Soviets during the Afghan jihad. His accomplishments during that conflict may have been wildly exaggerated by his supporters, but no one disputes he's experienced in matters of war.
He’s even more experienced and proficient at managing terrorist operations. Osama bin Laden studies his enemy, looks for vulnerabilities, and uses that information to select a target. He spends years on surveillance and planning, and when that is done, he sends multiple teams of highly trained terrorists to carry out his plans. Bin Laden is detail-oriented. During the East African embassy bombings, he pointed out where the truck bomb should be placed in Nairobi for maximum casualties.
In contrast, Awlaki attracts lunatics, points them at America, and pushes.
It’s absolutely appropriate to treat Awlaki as a serious threat. One 2010 intelligence report estimated that as many as three hundred Americans had trained with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If the estimate is accurate, it would represent an unprecedented migration of Americans into the ranks of jihadists, and Awlaki was almost certainly driving that recruitment.
But the rush to anoint him as the next bin Laden may also be fueling his recent success. Awlaki’s writings and lectures were not heavily promoted on the most important terrorist forums until after AQAP publicly accepted him, and that didn’t happen until months after the media push began and then only after the United States announced he had been targeted for death.
There is no question that Awlaki’s status among terrorists was greatly enhanced by the media’s estimation of his importance. Even with that helpful push, however, it’s hard to imagine that Awlaki could ever fill the shoes of Osama bin Laden. But the end of Awlaki’s story has yet to be written, and the American imam has proved himself to be full of surprises.
J. M. Berger has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His writing has appeared in the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Examiner, and he has produced programming on terrorism and national security for National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and the National Geographic Channel. His recent work includes Sarajevo Ricochet, a 2011 European television documentary about the mujahideen in Bosnia. Berger is the founder and the editor of the terrorism news and research website Intelwire.com, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
*Photo Credit: Potomac Books (provided by Author)