Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad

  • Print
  • Single Page
  • Reprints

(Page 5 of 6)

“So this is not now a war on terrorism, we need to all be clear about this, this is a war on Muslims!” Mr. Awlaki declared, his voice shaking with anger. “Not only is it happening worldwide, but it’s happening right here in America that is claiming to be fighting this war for the sake of freedom.”

Around that time, Johari Abdul-Malik, a former Howard University chaplain who was joining the staff at Mr. Awlaki’s Virginia mosque, met him at a cafe. Mr. Awlaki said he planned to leave the United States.

“I tried to convince him that the atmosphere was not as bad as he thought, that it was a positive time for outreach,” Mr. Abdul-Malik recalled. But Mr. Awlaki was shaken by what he saw as an anti-Muslim backlash. And always fond of the limelight, Mr. Abdul-Malik said, Mr. Awlaki was looking for a bigger platform.

“He said he might have a TV show for the gulf,” Mr. Abdul-Malik said. “He might run for Parliament in Yemen. Or he might teach.”

‘Never Trust a Kuffar’

In a bare lecture room in London, where Mr. Awlaki moved after leaving the United States, he addressed his rapt, young followers, urging them never to believe a non-Muslim, or kuffar in Arabic.

“The important lesson to learn here is never, ever trust a kuffar,” he said, chopping the air, his lecture caught on video. “Do not trust them!”

The unbelievers are “plotting to kill this religion,” he declared. “They’re plotting night and day.”

If he had the same knowing tone and touches of humor as in earlier sermons, his message was more conspiratorial. You can’t believe CNN, the United Nations, or Amnesty International, he told his students, because they, too, were part of the war on Islam.

“We need to wisen up and not be duped,” Mr. Awlaki said. “Malcolm X said, ‘We’ve been bamboozled.’”

Many of his young British Muslim listeners, accustomed to preachers with heavy accents and an otherworldly focus, were entranced by his mix of the ancient and the contemporary, his seamless transition from the 29 battles of the Prophet Muhammad to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “He was the main man who translated the jihad into English,” said Abu Yahiya, 27, a Bangladeshi-British student of Mr. Awlaki’s lectures in 2003.

At a personal level, said Mr. Rahman, one of the students who studied with Mr. Awlaki in 2003, Mr. Awlaki made it clear that they could no longer pretend to be Muslims while going clubbing at night.

“I could not be Mohammed in the morning and ‘Mo’ in the evening,” he said.

Mr. Awlaki’s demand that they make a choice, devoting themselves to a harsh, fundamentalist strain of Islam, offered clarity, he said.

“It would hit the audience automatically in their hearts and minds,” Mr. Rahman said. When others claimed the popular cleric was brainwashing them, Mr. Rahman said, “When you got a lot of dirt in your brain, you need a washing. I believe he did brainwash me.”

Mr. Awlaki’s fame grew, his CDs kept selling, and he traveled around Britain lecturing. But he had a hard time supporting himself, according to people who knew him, and in 2004 he had moved to Yemen to preach and study.

In mid-2006, after he intervened in a tribal dispute, Mr. Awlaki was imprisoned for 18 months by the Yemeni authorities. By his later account on his blog, he was in solitary confinement nearly the entire time and used it to study the Koran, to read literature (he enjoyed Dickens but disliked Shakespeare) and eventually, when it was permitted, to study Islamic scholarship.

Notably, he was enraptured by the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose time in the United States helped make him the father of the modern anti-Western jihadist movement in Islam.

“Because of the flowing style of Sayyid I would read between 100 and 150 pages a day,” Mr. Awlaki wrote. “I would be so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly.”

Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Souad Mekhennet from London. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen.

  • Print
  • Single Page
  • Reprints