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Al-Awlaki: From voice for jihad to al Qaeda figure
To his father, Nasser al-Awlaki, he was wrongly accused by the U.S. and was simply an “all-American boy.”
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico where his father was in the United States studying agriculture as a Fulbright scholar. The elder al-Awlaki returned with his family to Yemen in 1978 to serve as agriculture minister, and later as a professor at Sanaa University.
His son was back in the U.S. in 1991 to study civil engineering at Colorado State University, then education studies at San Diego State University and later doctoral work at George Washington University in Washington.
While in San Diego, he preached at a local mosque — and at one point was arrested on charges of solicitation of prostitution. In 1999 and 2000 he was investigated by the FBI, though no criminal charges were filed against him. During that time he met two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, prompting another round of FBI questioning after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The U.S. government’s 9-11 Commission report says the men “respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him.” They were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Al-Awlaki later became a preacher at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the center’s outreach director, said al-Awlaki never exhibited signs of radicalism there.
“I don’t think we read him wrong. I think something happened to him.”
His recorded sermons were sold at Falls Church stores catering to Islamic residents, homilies that dealt with such religious subjects as the afterlife and the Prophet Muhammad.
After al-Awlaki left the U.S. in 2002, he spent time in London before returning to Yemen in 2004, with his Yemeni wife and their children, believed to number up to five. In the years that followed, his Internet sermons turned more toward politics and jihad, accusing America of waging war on Muslims and urging armed struggle against the United States.
Yemeni authorities arrested him in 2006 with a group of five Yemenis suspected of kidnapping a Shiite Muslim teenager for ransom. Al-Awlaki was accused of being the group’s spiritual leader and of having decreed they had a religious right to kidnap foreigners and rich Yemenis. He was released without trial after a year in prison following the intercession of his tribe.
Soon after, he moved to the heartland of his Awalik tribe in the eastern province of Shabwa, regarded as an al Qaeda stronghold.
Canadian Muslims arrested in 2006 for allegedly forming a training camp and plotting bombing attacks in Toronto listened to al-Awlaki’s online calls for jihad, prosecutors said. An al-Awlaki sermon on jihad was also among the materials — including videos of beheadings — found on the computers of five men convicted of plotting attacks on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey in 2007.
In January 2009, al-Awlaki posted on his Web site a tract entitled “44 ways to defend jihad,” urging Muslims around the world to support Islamic fighters by raising money or helping their families. He said those who are able should join the battle, since it “pleases Allah because it shows him that you are willing to give your life for him.”
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