Anwar al-Awlaki: Moderate Terrorist
Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet have a recent, interesting article, "Imam's Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad" (May 8, 2010), published in the New York Times. Though the headline speaks of "path" in the singular, this imam seems to have been on a dual path all along, or at least was long an ambivalent figure. He first shot to national attention immediately after 9/11:
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.So says Mr. Anwar al-Awlaki, but there's another story, one beginning with a youthful interest in jihad and a salafi interpretation of Islam (see the article) and leaving tracks in Colorado, San Diego, and Falls Church, Virginia, all before 9/11:
"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."
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.There's at least a bit of circumstantial evidence that Awlaki already supported suicide bombing even prior to 9/11. According to Shakir Muhammad, who attends a mosque in Fort Collins, Colorado and listened to the CD sets that Awlaki started recording in 2000, one passage gave him pause. Mr. Awlaki was discussing suicidal violence but did not explicitly condemn it. Mr. Muhammad recalls thinking, "This guy may be for it . . . . It bothered me."
There's more circumstantial evidence, concerning some overlap between the end of his time in San Diego and the beginning of his time in Viginia:
One day in August 2001, Mr. Awlaki knocked at the door of Mr. [Lincoln W.] Higgie, his neighbor [in San Diego], to say goodbye. He had moved the previous year to Virginia, becoming imam at the far bigger Dar al-Hijrah mosque, and he had returned to pick up a few things he had left behind.Merely circumstantial, of course, but rather troubling. There's more such evidence, and some of it goes back further:
As Mr. Higgie tells it, he told the imam to stop by if he was ever in the area -- and got a strange response. "He said, 'I don't think you’ll be seeing me. I won't be coming back to San Diego again. Later on you’ll find out why,'" Mr. Higgie said.
The next month, when Al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington, Mr. Higgie remembered the exchange and was shaken, convinced that his friendly neighbor had some advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In fact, the F.B.I. had first taken an interest in Mr. Awlaki in 1999, concerned about brushes with militants that to this day remain difficult to interpret. In 1998 and 1999, he was a vice president of a small Islamic charity that an F.B.I. agent later testified was "a front organization to funnel money to terrorists." He had been visited by Ziyad Khaleel, a Qaeda operative who purchased a battery for Osama bin Laden's satellite phone, as well as by an associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheik, who was serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.I'm surprised that the FBI and other investigators didn't follow up more on this guy after 9/11, especially since the world of Islam in America isn't all that small, given that there are several million Muslims, nor were Alwaki's encounters with the 9/11 perpetrators merely random, since he was seen in long discussions with at least two of them, serving as spiritual advisor to one of the two. Again, circumstantial, but very troubling. At any rate, whatever the path Awlaki was really on, we know where it led him, namely, to hatred of all kuffar, or non-Muslims, as caught on video in London, where he moved in 2002 before returning to Yemen in 2004:
Still more disturbing was Mr. Awlaki's links to two future Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. They prayed at his San Diego mosque and were seen in long conferences with the cleric. Mr. Alhazmi would follow the imam to his new mosque in Virginia, and 9/11 investigators would call Mr. Awlaki Mr. Alhazmi's "spiritual adviser."
The F.B.I., whose agents interviewed Mr. Awlaki four times in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, concluded that his contacts with the hijackers and other radicals were random, the inevitable consequence of living in the small world of Islam in America. But records of the 9/11 commission at the National Archives make clear that not all investigators agreed.
One detective, whose name has been redacted, told the commission he believed Mr. Awlaki "was at the center of the 9/11 story." An F.B.I. agent, also unidentified, said that "if anyone had knowledge of the plot, it would have been" the cleric, since "someone had to be in the U.S. and keep the hijackers spiritually focused."
"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!"If Awlaki had been radicalized solely against America because of its putative ill treatment of Muslims in the wake of 9/11, then he wouldn't have been preaching already in 2002 against all non-Muslims.
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.
That alone suggests an obscured but radical path long trod, whatever ambivalence Awlaki might sometimes have felt.