Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad
By SCOTT SHANE and SOUAD MEKHENNET
Published: May 8, 2010
WASHINGTON — In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the eloquent 30-year-old imam of a mosque outside Washington became a go-to Muslim cleric for reporters scrambling to explain Islam. He condemned the mass murder, invited television crews to follow him around and patiently explained the rituals of his religion.
Notes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other areas of conflict in the post-9/11 era.
Times Topic: Anwar al-Awlaki
The Lede Blog: A Call to Jihad in an American Accent (March 18, 2010)
“We came here to build, not to destroy,” the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, said in a sermon. “We are the bridge between Americans and one billion Muslims worldwide.”
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.
At a time of new concern about the attraction of Western Muslims to violent extremism, there is no figure more central than Mr. Awlaki, who has harnessed the Internet for the goals of Al Qaeda. Counterterrorism officials are gravely concerned about his powerful appeal for many others who are following his path to radicalization.
“He’s a magnetic character,” said Philip Mudd, a veteran of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center who just stepped down after nearly five years as a top F.B.I. intelligence adviser. “He’s a powerful orator in a revolutionary movement.”
Convinced that he is a lethal threat, the United States government has responded in kind. This year Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen on the C.I.A.’s list of terrorists approved as a target for killing, a designation that has only enhanced his status with admirers like Shahidur Rahman, 27, a British Muslim of Bangladeshi descent who studied with Mr. Awlaki in London in 2003.
Other clerics equivocated about whether terrorist violence could be reconciled with Islam, Mr. Rahman said, but even seven years ago Mr. Awlaki made clear that he had few such qualms.
“He said suicide is not allowed in Islam,” Mr. Rahman said in an interview, “but self-sacrifice is different.”
There are two conventional narratives of Mr. Awlaki’s path to jihad. The first is his own: He was a nonviolent moderate until the United States attacked Muslims openly in Afghanistan and Iraq, covertly in Pakistan and Yemen, and even at home, by making targets of Muslims for raids and arrests. He merely followed the religious obligation to defend his faith, he said.
“What am I accused of?” he asks in a recent video bearing the imprint of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “Of calling for the truth? Of calling for jihad for the sake of Allah? Of calling to defend the causes of the Islamic nation?”
A contrasting version of Mr. Awlaki’s story, explored though never confirmed by the national Sept. 11 commission, maintains that he was a secret agent of Al Qaeda starting well before the attacks, when three of the hijackers turned up at his mosques. By this account, all that has changed since then is that Mr. Awlaki has stopped hiding his true views.
The tale that emerges from visits to his mosques, and interviews with two dozen people who knew him, is more complex and elusive. A product both of Yemen’s deeply conservative religious culture and freewheeling American ways, he hesitated to shake hands with women but patronized prostitutes. He was first enthralled with jihad as a teenager — but the cause he embraced, the defeat of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, was then America’s cause too. After a summer visit to the land of the victorious mujahedeen, he brought back an Afghan hat and wore it proudly around the Colorado State campus in Fort Collins where he studied engineering.
Later, Mr. Awlaki seems to have tried out multiple personas: the representative of a tolerant Islam in a multicultural United States (starring in a WashingtonPost.com video explaining Ramadan); the fiery American activist talking about Muslims’ constitutional rights (and citing both Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown); the conspiracy theorist who publicly doubted the Muslim role in the Sept. 11 attacks. (The F.B.I., he wrote a few days afterward, simply blamed passengers with Muslim names.)