The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a key spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, removes one of the global jihadist movement’s most effective English-speaking recruiters from the scene.
According to U.S. officials, al-Awlaki was the most successful recruiter for what has been called “self-radicalized” terrorists — those inspired by al Qaeda’s message of jihad to take action.
Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone stroke carried out by a joint CIA-U.S. special operations team that attacked his convoy some 87 miles from Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, the Associated Press reported.
Al-Awlaki’s death leaves al Qaeda central spokesman Adam Gadahn as the remaining English-language recruiter of note.
U.S. officials linked al-Awlaki to several threats and attacks against the United States and American citizens through his meetings and lectures.
He admitted that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan — who is accused of killing 13 people in a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas — was one of his students. In May 2010, al-Awlaki called on all Muslims to “follow the steps of Nidal, to perform jihad either by words or by hand.”
Al-Awlaki also stated that he helped recruit Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Dec. 25, 2009, using a bomb hidden in his underwear.
Counterterrorism officials also have linked al-Awlaki to a 2010 message posted on the Islamist website RevolutionMuslim.com that threatened the creators of the cartoon sitcom “South Park.” An audio clip of a 2008 al-Awlaki speech was included in the threat.
A survey of the English-language jihadist forum called Islamic Awakening found 456 postings on al-Awlaki, most of them defending the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader.
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico and left the United States in 2002. He first surfaced in al Qaeda propaganda in April 2010.
He had a wide international Internet following before joining al Qaeda, when he headed mosques in Northern Virginia and San Diego.
Al-Awlaki was known as an expert orator who used popular references that were appealing to Western audiences, like his YouTube video about the death of pop singer Michael Jackson.
Al-Awlaki’s influence spread with the launching in 2010 of the English-language magazine Inspire, which specifically targets U.S. Muslims and was used by the cleric to promote al Qaeda’s messages.
By contrast, Gadahn, who is linked to the central al Qaeda organization not headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, has been less effective in reaching out to Americans with a message of radicalization.
Gadahn’s past statements in English largely have reflected al Qaeda central’s Arabic messages. His messages use stylized language that is often more difficult for English listeners or readers to follow.
Gadahn, also known as Azzam al-Amriki, converted to Islam in 1995 before joining al Qaeda around 1998. His status as a convert and lack of any mosque leadership means he lacks the experience and religious authority of al-Awlaki.