- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | In his online lectures, Anwar al-Awlaki looks like a passionate professor. His arguments are thoughtful and well-researched, and his voice is steady and clear. Videos of his speeches have gone viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of hits, and his words resonate deeply with disaffected young Muslims, angered by what they see as Western attacks on Islam.

“We are fighting for truth and justice, and you are fighting for oppression,” he said in a March video calling for young American Muslims to wage a “holy war” against the U.S. Many YouTube users responded with blessings, thanks and vows to join the jihad.

Terrorism specialists say Mr. al-Awlaki could be more influential than Osama bin Laden, especially among potential radicals within the U.S. Last week, Mr. al-Awlaki, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Yemen, reportedly was put on a CIA hit list.

Here in Yemen’s capital, the cleric already seems like a ghost. Imams who preached with him in the mid-2000s say they now fear acknowledging that they even know him. Many people, including high-ranking officials, said they heard his name for the first time after he made headlines for supporting the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings.

In a cobblestone market in San’a’s medieval Old City, a young man in white thobe, with an ornate traditional jambiya knife in his belt, said he knew Mr. al-Awlaki for two years when they both were local preachers.

Khaled said he didn’t want to talk about the accusations against his former colleague, lest he be considered a terrorist, too. During his San’a days, Mr. al-Awlaki was quiet and helpful with a wide knowledge of Islam, said Khaled, who gave only his first name for security reasons. Mr. al-Awlaki was somewhat anti-social, he said, but otherwise seemed like a kind and peaceful man. “I don’t know why they want to accuse him as a terrorist,” he said.

Terrorism specialists say Mr. al-Awlaki inspired some of the most infamous terrorist attacks in recent U.S. history: Sept. 11, Fort Hood and the failed airline-bombing plot on Christmas Day. Even though he is thought to be hiding in a remote region of Yemen controlled by powerful tribal leaders, he continues to recruit what he calls “mujahedeen,” or “holy warriors,” on the Web.

“Not only is he a prolific producer of radical sermons and speeches, he is also in e-mail contact with dozens of American Muslims as he was with [purported Fort Hood shooter] Nidal Hassan,” Steven Emerson, a terrorism specialist who heads the Investigative Project on Terrorism, said in an e-mail.

Thousands of young Americans now study in radical Islamic schools in Yemen after being inspired by Mr. al-Awlaki, Mr. Emerson added.

After reports last week that White House officials approved an order to “capture or kill” the preacher, Yemeni tribal leaders warned that they would protect Mr. al-Awlaki from harm. The cleric is from one of the Awlak tribe’s most prominent and well-connected families, and he is related to Yemen’s prime minister.

The Yemeni government, which mistakenly boasted of killing Mr. al-Awlaki in December airstrikes, now says he is not considered a terrorist and will not be targeted by Yemeni security.

Mr. al-Awlaki’s father, Nasir al-Awlaki — a wealthy businessman, former minister of agriculture and acclaimed San’a University scholar — said he has no way to contact his son directly, but he wants his son and the U.S. government to pause awhile.

In a phone interview, the senior Mr. al-Awlaki called the terrorism accusations against his son “a bunch of lies.” He suggested that the hit be postponed for three months and that his son stop publishing anti-American rhetoric.

“Keep things quiet,” he said. “And maybe it will improve, rather than sending rockets and drones to kill people.”

On Monday, the elder Mr. al-Awlaki offered a deal to the U.S. government on Al Jazeera. He said his son would stop speaking out against the U.S. if he was taken off the hit list. The father did not, however, say whether his son had agreed to the deal.

Nasir al-Awlaki also urged the U.S. to stand down because his son is an American citizen. But citizenship won’t help the cleric, one U.S. counterterrorism official said.

“Yes, he’s a U.S. person,” the official said. “But Americans who take up with the enemy aren’t entitled to special protections. Citizenship is an additional factor you have to consider, but it certainly isn’t a shield for those who have plotted the murder of innocent Americans.”

Mr. al-Awlaki publicly works to recruit jihadists but does not admit to being directly connected to al Qaeda. On his blog, he called Nidal Hassan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, a “hero.” In a recent video posted on the Internet, he praised “brother” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day with nearly 300 people aboard.

He also said that “9/11 was the answer of the millions of people who suffer from American aggression.”

Mr. al-Awlaki’s boldness, however, is relatively new. Through a mediator, the cleric condemned the Christmas bomb plot and the Sept. 11 attacks in January because they targeted civilians.

“He supported the Fort Hood shootings because it was a military target,” said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist and friend of the cleric. “He did not approve of Sept. 11, which is why he was so popular in the U.S.”

Born in New Mexico in 1971, Mr. al-Awlaki was educated at Colorado University and went to graduate school in San Diego. While in school in California, he also served as a local imam and preached to Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who were among the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. The two men later attended Mr. al-Awlaki’s lectures in Northern Virginia at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center.

As a student in San Diego, Mr. al-Awlaki served as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare in San Diego, which was called a “front organization to funnel money to terrorists,” in a 2009 report by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorist-monitoring group.

U.S. officials were suspicious of Mr. al-Awlaki after Sept. 11, and he was watched closely in Virginia. They knew about his radical ideology and his connection to known jihadists, but there was not enough evidence of his direct involvement for an indictment at the time, Mr. Emerson said.

But pressure on the cleric mounted, as law enforcement officials connected Mr. al-Awlaki to other terrorism suspects. After officials found Mr. al-Awlaki’s phone number in the home of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni accused of facilitating the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. al-Awlaki moved to London. Two years later, he returned to Yemen, where he taught at Iman University, an Islamic college headed by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, a powerful sheik whom the U.S. and the U.N. call a “global terrorist.”

In 2006, Mr. al-Awlaki was arrested and held in a Yemeni jail without charges for 18 months. In a subsequent interview with a prisoners rights group, he claimed to have been interrogated by the FBI while he was detained.

“[Yemeni officials] began asking me questions about my local Islamic activities here,” he said in the interview. “And later on it was becoming clear that I was being held due to the request of the U.S. government.”

Since his release, his popularity appears to have soared. He has produced best-selling CDs, books and “how-to” jihad manuals. His work is posted all over the Internet, and his audio lectures are regularly reposted by listeners on YouTube with new visuals.

But in San’a, locals say most Yemenis have never heard of him. His sermons are in English, which is not widely spoken in Yemen, and are directed at Internet-savvy young Westerners.

In one of the city’s few green gardens, Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Sayari said he knows of Mr. al-Awlaki because he grew up near the cleric’s ancestral village. In the old days, the area was known as the “Kingdom of Awlak,” and Mr. al-Awlaki’s family is still the only one with any money. But the American-born cleric is now considered a guest in the region, not a resident.

“He is not famous there,” Mr. al-Sayari said. “He has no influence in Yemen.”

Once dubbed “the bin Laden of the Internet,” Mr. al-Awlaki has grown fame in the West. In a widely read 2009 article, “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” Mr. al-Awlaki urges male believers to get military training and women to prepare for the fact that husbands might die or be taken prisoner in the war against the West.

“Our children need to be raised up with the love of jihad and the mujahedeen,” he wrote. “The stories we narrate to them need to stem from our rich jihad history.”

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