Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric and leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has inspired or led at least 10 actual or attempted terrorist acts in the last year, an Investigative Project on Terrorism investigation shows.
A U.S. citizen now living in Yemen, Awlaki has a history of promoting terrorist violence since 1996, research shows. Awlaki has combined his ability to relate to English-speaking radicals with a growing network of associates to inspire terrorist acts ranging from the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009 to the foiled air cargo bombings last month.
Since late 2009, Awlaki has "taken on an increasingly operational role in Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a September court filing supporting the Obama administration's plans to target Awlaki. The actual or attempted attacks inspired or led by Awlaki include:
- Fort Hood attack: The Nov. 5, 2009, shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, killed 13 people and wounded at least 30 others. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused killer, communicated with Awlaki by email about 18 times in 2008, records show. After the shootings, Awlaki posted a message on his website calling Hasan a hero.
- Thwarted "underwear bomb" plot: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student, was arrested on Dec. 25, 2009, after he tried to detonate a bomb in his underwear while he was aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Abdulmutallab was said to have attended Awlaki's lectures in Yemen at the al-Eman University of Sana'a in 2005, and then became an avid follower of Awlaki's blog. In addition, the two communicated intensely prior to the attack. Awlaki also claimed Abdulmutallab as one of his students, although the cleric later blamed "America's crimes and injustice" as the primary causes of the young man's radicalization.
- Times Square bomb plot: Faisal Shahzad, who told investigators that he was inspired by Awlaki to bomb New York's Times Square, also maintained contact with him. Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison in October for the attempted car bombing in May.
- Washington Metro plot: Farooque Ahmed, the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen accused of plotting to bomb the Washington Metro system, had Awlaki videos in his home and office, according to federal search warrant records. Ahmed was targeting subway stops and a Washington hotel often used by military personnel, court records show.
- Air cargo plot: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is believed responsible for the planting of explosive materials in two packages sent from Yemen to addresses in Chicago. The AQAP commander Ibrahim al-Asiri is credited for building those two bombs as well as the one worn by Abdulmutallab on the Christmas Day flight last year. Following the innovative attack methods mentioned in the second edition of al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine, there is some speculation about Awlaki's involvement in this attack.
Although Awlaki has become a household name in terror circles in the last year, he has been working since 1996 to spread radical Islam, records show. In 1996, he encouraged a young Saudi student at his mosque in Denver to fight in the jihad in Chechnya.
The 1996 incident came after Awlaki began quoting from writings by one of the most prominent jihadist ideologues, Abdullah Azzam, who had encouraged jihad to liberate Muslim lands. Azzam's insistence on fighting foreign invaders of Muslim lands, particularly in the Palestinian territories which had been his homeland, made him a prominent leader of the jihad in Afghanistan and welcome in the countries in which he recruited fighters. Awlaki echoed the call for supporting Palestinian freedom fighters in 1999.
Although Awlaki's most explicit calls to violence began in 2009, many of his most prominent connections to terror come from the period before his exodus from the West in 2004.
In 1999 and 2000, Awlaki held several closed-door meetings with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhamzi, Khalid Almihdhar, and Hani Hanjour at the San Diego mosque he was running, the 9/11 Commission report found. In 2001, when Awlaki took up a position at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., Alhamzi and Hanjour turned up at his sermons. Investigators even found Awlaki's phone number in the apartment of Ramzi Binahshibh, the 20th hijacker. He also drew the FBI's attention for meeting with an associate of convicted terrorist Omar Abdul Rahman, "the Blind Sheik," who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the BBC reported.
While at Dar al-Hijrah in 2001 and 2002, Awlaki established his first connections to accused Fort Hood gunman Hasan. Awlaki later 'activated' him when Hasan came seeking advice about how to rectify his participation in an army that he perceived was killing Muslims.
Awlaki's speeches and videos started appearing with greater frequency in 2005, records show. His speeches were found at the bookstore where the July 7 London bombers met. A series of late 2005 speeches also spurred some radicals to act. In December 2005, a group nicknamed "the Toronto 18" listened to Awlaki's call to make jihad immediately, in the series of speeches entitled "Constants in the Path of Jihad." The group, which planned Canada's largest terrorist attempt post 9/11, was picked up on terrorist charges six months later. The leaders were convicted or pleaded guilty and are serving prison sentences.
In 2006, UK cases involving Aabid Khan and Rizwan Ditta were tied to Awlaki. Khan, a British terrorist recruiter, and Ditta, who sold terrorist texts, possessed Awlaki material as part of their jihadist projects, but not as their primary tools for radicalization. Khan was convicted of recruiting terrorists and was sentenced to 12 years in prison in August 2008. Ditta was convicted of plotting terrorist acts and was sentenced to four years in prison. Scottish terrorist Mohammed Atif Siddique, who was convicted in 2006 for threats to carry out a suicide bombing and for posting extremist material and bomb-making information on his websites, had a CD with Awlaki speeches in his possession.
Eljvir and Shain Duka, who were arrested in May 2007 in the U.S. for planning to attack Fort Dix, N.J., were recorded discussing the importance of Awlaki's call for immediate jihad. Likewise, Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed a British Parliamentarian earlier this year for voting for the Iraq War, was primarily inspired by Awlaki.
Others heard Awlaki's call to jihad and took seriously his endorsement of Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group. Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who were arrested in the U.S. for attempting to join the group, listened to Awlaki's speech "Constants" and his other calls to fight. Similarly, Shaker Masri, another fan of Awlaki's speeches, also tried to meet up with Al-Shabaab. Mohammed Elhi Ibrahim, a Somali Canadian who died fighting for the group, was deeply inspired by the cleric. He also hosted many Awlaki speeches on his Jihadist blog, "The Gardens of Paradise." In addition, around 20 Somali-American youths from Minnesota who did link up with the terror group, reportedly listened to his speeches before their departure.
Personal encouragement was the primary factor in Awlaki's most recent involvement in terror. Yemeni prosecutors of Hisham Mohammed Assem, who has confessed to murdering a French energy contractor in Yemen, claim that Awlaki had encouraged Assem for months to murder foreigners in the country. The evidence was enough to spur Yemen to launch a second arrest warrant for Awlaki, following his imprisonment in 2006 and 2007.
In Yemen, Awlaki uses the Internet to maintain contact with admirers and to expand his base of radicals.
He used the Internet to give live speeches in England, thus carrying on his ability to establish contacts in the West. He also established a popular blog, www.anwaralawlaki.com. Awlaki's blog provided not only a base for showing his personality, from his reviews of English literature to correspondence with Somalia's terror group Al-Shabaab, but also its comments section provided a forum for linking up radicals with would-be terrorists.
The Internet also provided Awlaki with the means to continue his personal involvement in terror cases. Sharif Mobley, an American who is being tried in Yemen for his involvement with al-Qaida and the murder of a security guard, was also in contact with Awlaki. Mobley's lawyer is claiming that connection was largely personal, as opposed to terrorist related.
Three other U.S. cases demonstrate the extent of Awlaki's online presence. American Zachary Chesser, who recently pled guilty in the U.S. to threatening South Park cartoonists among other charges, consulted with Awlaki about his desire to join al-Shabaab. Alaskan terror suspect, Paul Rockwood Jr., corresponded with Awlaki about contributing money to Islamic fighters; Awlaki responded by providing him with a copy of his terrorism support manual, "44 Ways to Support Jihad."
Rockwood later devoted himself to this work and Awlaki's speeches, "Constants in the Way of Jihad." He became a follower of Awlaki's shortly after his conversion to Islam in late 2001 or early 2002, he admits in his plea agreement, developing "a personal conviction that it was his (ROCKWOOD'S) religious responsibility to exact revenge by death on anyone who desecrated Islam."
American Barry Walter Bujol, Jr. also communicated with Awlaki about ways to provide aid to the mujahideen, and was charged in Texas with aiding al-Qaida. Awlaki appears to have provided him with an advance copy "44 Ways to Support Jihad" in 2008, which would not be posted to his blog until February 2009.