Is imam a terror recruiter or just an incendiary preacher?
By Hannah Allam | McClatchy Newspapers
CAIRO, Egypt — The Yemeni-American imam who's been under renewed scrutiny after the deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, preaches against alcohol, birthday parties, black magic and extramarital sex. He also supports armed struggle — jihad — against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has encouraged extremist insurgents in Pakistan and Somalia.
None of that sets Anwar al Awlaki, 38, apart from other militant Sunni Muslim clerics — and even many mainstream ones — in the Middle East. Awlaki uses digital means to spread his views, however, through a blog, lectures on YouTube and Facebook pages with more than 1,000 fans.
American-born and popular with young Westernized Muslims, Awlaki preaches mainly in English and drops pop-culture references, invoking Michael Jackson in a sermon on death or the parable of a marijuana-smoking Muslim who turned his life around.
Awlaki's teachings, however, also reportedly have inspired suspects in a number of high-profile international cases: two of the 9/11 hijackers, alleged militants accused of planning to blow up targets in Toronto, several Somali-American youths who died while fighting in Mogadishu and, most recently, the Muslim Army major who's charged with killing 13 people in the Fort Hood rampage Nov. 5.
In the past year, U.S. investigators say, Awlaki corresponded several times with Maj. Nidal Hasan. The investigators deemed the exchanges benign, consistent with research Hasan was conducting on Muslims in the military. Awlaki himself, purportedly speaking through an intermediary to The Washington Post, said this week that he'd answered only a couple of the dozen or so e-mails Hassan sent him.
Awlaki was under FBI investigation after the 9/11 bombings, but concerns surrounding him today appear to be based, at least publicly, more on his incendiary sermons than on solid evidence establishing a link to militant groups. Despite several brushes with terrorism suspects — allegedly by phone, e-mail and in U.S. mosques — Awlaki hasn't been charged with a terrorism-related crime and the only time he's apparently spent in jail was in Yemen in connection with a tribal dispute, according to news and court accounts.
Middle Eastern analysts cautioned against treating Awlaki as a senior terrorism suspect when so little is known about his links to violent extremist groups. Targeting him also could backfire and increase his popularity among young Muslims worldwide, the analysts warned. Fans already have set up Web pages supporting him, with comments sections full of anti-American rhetoric.
"The American position is flexible and changes a lot. During most of his life, Yasser Arafat was considered a terrorist, but then he received the Nobel Peace Prize," said Fahmi Howeidy, a prominent Egyptian Islamist writer with a column in a Cairo newspaper. "It's the same with that guy, Awlaki; they've created a demon out of him."
An independent Yemeni political analyst, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the suspicions about Awlaki came from his hard-line beliefs, which were no different from those of other imams in the Middle East, where "praising jihad is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and many Arab nations." Coverage in the Western news media is "exaggerating and magnifying" the threat that Awlaki poses, he said.
"This imam is a product of the Salafist Wahhabi" — or ultraconservative — "thought that managed to drive scores of youths to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the '70s, and which is still nestled in many parts of the Middle East," the analyst said. "The difference here is that he gave these sermons in the U.S., where it's unheard-of, while in the Arab world it's the norm."
Awlaki's militant message and wide audience made him a subject of interest for U.S. intelligence agencies nearly a decade before the Fort Hood shootings.
Back then, Awlaki wasn't hard to find. He served as imam to 3,000 Muslims at a mosque in suburban Virginia, held an online chat on The Washington Post's Web site in which he answered questions about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and granted several news interviews. In a report just after 9/11, The New York Times held up Awlaki as an example of a "new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West."
The FBI, however, was investigating Awlaki's activities and connections. The cleric moved to Yemen in 2002, presumably to be out of reach of U.S. authorities.
It's unclear whether FBI agents turned up much of concern in their investigations of Awlaki. Suspicions about him in government reports are padded with qualifying terms. Two of the 9/11 hijackers "reportedly respected Awlaki as a religious figure," the 9/11 Commission concluded. Awlaki's encounters with a suspect in San Diego "may not have been coincidental," wrote investigators for the congressional joint inquiry on 9/11.
FBI officials were quoted as saying that Awlaki was an important recruiter for al Qaida and had been contacted by an associate of Osama bin Laden, though no evidence was provided and U.S. authorities haven't charged Awlaki with any crime.
"He's a 9/11 loose end," 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow told McClatchy. Zelikow added that one of his frustrations with the 9/11 investigation was its inability to determine what Awlaki's relationship was to 9/11 hijackers who turned up at Awlaki's mosques in San Diego and then again in Falls Church, Va.
Commission investigators traveled to Yemen in 2004 but were unable to interview Awlaki, though precisely why was unclear.
U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS this week that the government isn't giving Congress full details of the investigation into Awlaki's connection to the Fort Hood shooting suspect.
"The Yemeni cleric has been on our radar since 2001 and 2002. We had evidence in 2002. Why didn't we prosecute him?" Hoekstra asked.
"I want to know who al Awlaki is talking to in the U.S.," Hoekstra added.
In Yemen, Awlaki's activism again drew interest. He took a teaching position at a university led by a cleric who was put on the U.S. terrorism watch list in 2004. Yemeni authorities detained Awlaki for a year and a half over his arbitration of a tribal dispute, but he said in interviews after he was released that the United States had orchestrated the arrest and that FBI agents had questioned him about the Sept. 11 attacks and other topics while he was behind bars.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and doctoral candidate at Princeton University, noted on his Yemen-focused blog Waq-al-Waq that Awlaki's name had showed up on a list of 100 prisoners whose release was sought by al Qaida-linked militants in Yemen. Johnsen also wrote that Awlaki had praised al Qaida on his Web site after a clash between militants and Yemeni security forces in July.
Still, Johnsen played down Awlaki's possible threat and described him as "more a product of the U.S. than he is of Yemen."
"In my opinion, he is not a major player within the Yemeni arena, but rather someone who uses his Yemeni background to bolster his credentials for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, primarily in the U.S., Canada and Europe," Johnsen wrote in a Nov. 9 posting.
Awlaki was released from the Yemeni jail in 2007. He went underground in recent weeks, with his blog disabled and Yemeni authorities looking for him, according to Yemeni news reports.
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo and Mark Seibel in Washington contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Middle East news at Middle East Diary.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009