Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric, has just been killed in Yemen, according to both Yemeni defence ministry and US officials. This represents the harshest blow to al-Qaeda’s global movement since the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May. Although not a military strategist or commander of Bin Laden’s stature, Awlaki’s importance as a charismatic “procurement agent” for al-Qaeda, and as an ideologue for global jihadism, can be seen in his influence of several infamous lone wolf terrorists. These include Nidal Malk Hassan, the US army major who murdered 13 of his fellow soliders and wounded 29 others at the Ford Hood military installation in late 2009; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian UCL graduate who tried to detonate a bomb woven into his underwear on a Detroit-bound airliner two Christmases ago, and Faisal Shahzad, the abortive Times Square bomber.
Everything you need to know about Awlaki’s particular brand of violent Salafism, and his role as an online procurer of disaffected Muslims, is contained in a brilliant new report by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. Awlaki began advocating jihad in Chechnya in the mid-90s as a young imam in Denver. He was a suspect in two FBI investigations before 9/11, including one that ended in March 2000, after Awlaki was thought to have had contact with two of the future 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. Nevertheless, he hung around the US, preaching at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where he met a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour. He was arrested twice in 1996 and 1997 for the solicitation of prostitutes (if anything remains of Awlaki’s hard drive, my guess is his porn stash will rival that of the self-abusers of Abbottabad).
And like many jihadists, Awlaki spent some time in London, brought here by various Islamic groups and NGOs. As Meleagrou-Hitchens notes:
In 2002, Awlaki moved to the UK where, along with JIMAS [then a Salafist group that has since undergone somewhat moderate reforms], his patrons were leading Muslim Brotherhood-aligned organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). Throughout June 2003, they toured him around the country to give lectures to Muslims on subjects ranging from the war on Islam and Muslims to the role of Muslims in the local community. On 18 June in London, he spoke at an event held in conjunction with the MAB and the Islamic societies of four of the city’s main universities, a further reflection of his popularity among young Western Muslims. At the University of Aston in Birmingham four days later, his entire talk was in praise of a number of leading Islamist ideologues, including Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna and ‘Umm Jihad’ (mother of jihad) Zaynab al-Ghazali, who were both described as ‘saviours of the Islamic spirit.’
Specifically, Awlaki was hosted at FOSIS’s annual conference at Camden Centre in June 2003. He was presented as a “distinguished guest.” (Perhaps this is why the Home Office’s recent Prevent Review and Strategy judged that “FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors.”)
A few months later, in December 2003, Awlaki turned up at the East London Mosque (ELM) in Tower Hamlets to participate in its “Stop Police Terror” event. He exhorted the congregation not to cooperate with the authorities’ counterterrorism investigations. “A Muslim is a brother of a Muslim,” he said, “he does not oppress him, he does not betray him and he does not hand him over… You don’t hand over a Muslim to the enemies…”
That was the first of two events involving Awlaki at the ELM. The second was a video message he delivered in January 2009 — by which time he’d reportedly emigrated to Yemen – for the mosque’s “The End of Time” event (here’s a poster for that eschatological confab), by which time his views on supporting violent jihad were widely known. The Telegraph reported his scheduled appearance before it took place but the ELM decided to host him anyway. The mosque issued a statement: “Mr Awlaki has not been proven guilty in a court of law. Everyone is entitled to their point of view… The subject matter is about judgement and the afterlife, a common theme in many religions.”
By February 2009, Awlaki had published a pamphlet titled “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” in which he wrote: “Preparing for Jihad is obligatory… Arms training is an essential part of preparation for Jihad.” No matter. He was slated to address City University ISOC’s annual dinner on 1 April 2009, an appearance that was ultimately cancelled after the counter-extremism think tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion (now part of the Henry Jackson Society), protested. Then, in August 2009, Awlaki was meant to give yet another video lecture at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, this one organised by Moazzam Begg’s Cageprisoners group for its “Beyond Guantanamo” dinner. Another pressure campaign scotched that appearance as well, although City’s ISOC went ahead and posted Awlaki’s prerecorded audio message on its website.
In January 2009, shortly after the thwarted Underpants Bomber plot, President Obama issued a “kill or capture” order against Awlaki, signalling his importance to the War on Terror.
Now might be a good time to inquire of FOSIS and ELM if they still find the late, unlamented cleric acceptable company.