Hunting Down Anwar al-Awlaki, Public Enemy No. 1

He's called bin Laden 2.0, but Anwar al-Awlaki's true identity is far more complicated.


Amid the deluge of radical Islamic literature, few works are as influential to would-be terrorists as a booklet called "Constants on the Path of Jihad." Written in Arabic by a Saudi al Qaeda adherent, the booklet is the subject of a series of wildly popular video lectures in English by Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who has become one of the world's most-wanted men. Awlaki preaches worldwide violence in the name of Islam. Millions have viewed the videos on YouTube and jihadi sites, and a few viewers have gone on to commit terrorist acts as a result.

Awlaki has been called "the [Osama] bin Laden of the Facebook age," "bin Laden 2.0," "the most dangerous man in the world," and a "terrorist mastermind" in the press. The U.S. government considers him such a threat that it has reportedly added him to the Pentagon's "kill or capture" list. But there is considerable debate within and outside the government about the true nature of Awlaki's role in the al Qaeda movement and the most effective ways to neutralize both the man and the message.

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There is little debate, however, about Awlaki's global reach and his resonance with Western audiences. Just recently he released a video that called on Muslims to kill Americans. "Don't consult with anyone in fighting the Americans," Awlaki says in the video. "Fighting the devil doesn't require consultation or prayers or seeking divine guidance." And copies of the "Constants" lecture series have popped up in nearly every investigation of homegrown terrorism in the English-speaking world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to court records. Awlaki's sermons have appeared on the computers of Tarek Mehanna, who was arrested on terrorism charges in Boston last October, and of Nadia and Paul Rockwood, the Alaska couple who pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators in a domestic terrorism investigation in July. Recordings made by investigators of the men planning to attack Fort Dix in 2007 include conversations taped while one of Awlaki's sermons plays in the background. "Because so many Muslims living in the West don't speak Arabic, these lectures are very popular among radicals; 'Constants on the Path of Jihad,' in particular, has become a sort of bible for the self-radicalized extremist," says Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert who specializes in radical propaganda. Recently, at the request of the British and American governments, YouTube removed hundreds of Awlaki lectures. But the videos are still available online on various jihad websites.

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It is not just the videos that have made Awlaki Washington's most recent public enemy. U.S. intelligence officials say that Awlaki has become much more than a radical preacher for the al Qaeda group known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a Yemen-based franchise of bin Laden's terrorist network. Officials contend that he had direct contact with both the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, and he had a role in the attempted mail bombings this month that originated from Yemen. He is also said to have served as one inspiration to the accused Times Square bomber, Faizal Shahzad.

Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. He speaks fluent English and studied engineering and education at Colorado State. He made a name for himself preaching in mosques in California and Virginia in the years before the 9/11 attacks. He had little formal schooling in Islam or battlefield experience, which have been sources of criticism from Arab radicals, experts say.

Traveling in increasingly radical circles during the 1990s, Awlaki first came to the attention of the U.S. government in 1999 for his ties to associates of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheik." After the 9/11 attacks, investigators discovered that Awlaki had met, but didn't apparently aid, two of the hijackers.

Awlaki was arrested in 1996 and again in 1997 for soliciting prostitutes. When FBI agents again saw Awlaki talking to prostitutes in 2002, they contemplated arresting him on solicitation charges to force more cooperation on the 9/11 probe. But before they could do so, he left the country. Over the past eight years, Awlaki has become more strident in his beliefs and has increased his violent, anti-Western rhetoric.