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.
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.
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.
Sources say Awlaki was added to the Pentagon's "kill or capture" list earlier this year after it was determined that the cleric had morphed from a rhetorician into an "operational" terrorist leader. The criteria for making such determinations and the evidence for it have not been made public. Moreover, the government doesn't officially acknowledge even the existence of either a kill list or the campaign of drone strikes used against those on it. But several senior intelligence officials say that Awlaki was added to the list after the interrogation of the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, revealed the cleric's complicity in that affair.
The U.S. government's official position is that Awlaki is a leader in the Yemen-based group. "There is no doubt that Awlaki is a senior figure in AQAP. He is now in their top leadership ranks with a role that focuses on external operations plotting," says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But that view is not universally shared. "Despite his public reputation, he's actually a very mid-level guy in the [AQAP] organization," says Princeton University's Gregory Johnsen, a leading expert on Yemen. Adds a U.S. intelligence official who studies Islamic radicals: "Awlaki is part of AQAP in name only. He has no real command, power, or tactical input."
Kohlmann describes Awlaki as more of an "outside consultant" who hasn't sworn an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden and appears to value his autonomy from the official AQAP leadership structure. As evidence, Kohlmann points to the video Awlaki released, which conspicuously lacked the imprimatur of the AQAP media wing, as indicative of Awlaki's autonomy. A Yemeni official concurs with this assessment of the latest video, adding that "Awlaki likes to have it both ways, as a religious leader when it suits him, and as a 'mastermind' when it suits him. He simply likes the attention."
Awlaki is a dangerous "senior leader adjunct," says Juan Zuarte, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration. "He is a sort of Pied Piper for western recruits, an all-purpose inspirational voice for self-starters," Zuarte says. "But recently he has also played a more direct operational role, particularly with plots aimed at the West."
Despite the debate over his role in AQAP, the United States still is making efforts to both kill Awlaki and to neutralize his message, according to sources. Those efforts are both controversial and emblematic of the larger conundrums plaguing the war on terrorism. Yemen doesn't have the capabilities to catch Awlaki, and attempts by the United States and Yemen to kill him have angered locals, threatening the regime even further. "For every innocent mother and child killed in a raid against [AQAP]," one Yemeni official says, "there may be many people in the extended families or tribes of the fallen that will now side with AQAP in the future."
Yemen has a mixed record of combating AQAP and is struggling with a host of internal problems, including two separate domestic insurgencies. In the past, these have taken precedence over combating terrorism. But events like the recent attempted mail bombings and continued U.S. pressure on the Yemeni government, not to mention a U.S. aid package that jumped from $11 million in 2006 to $70 million last year, has led to action.
Yemeni forces backed by U.S. intelligence and firepower have launched dozens of raids and airstrikes against AQAP targets in the country over the past year and are thought to have killed half a dozen of the group's leaders, according to officials.
But not all operations have been successful; indeed, they sometimes backfire badly. Last December, U.S. intelligence officials crowed anonymously in the Washington Post that Awlaki had been killed in a raid, calling it a "decapitating strike." The attack, which Amnesty International says included the use of U.S.-made cruise missiles containing cluster bombs, killed 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, according to an investigation by the Yemeni parliament. It also killed al Qaeda fighters, but it was the civilian death toll that enraged the Yemeni people. Contrary to early reports, Awlaki escaped the attack unscathed. The U.S. government, for its part, has acknowledged no formal role in the attack.
In May, forces in Yemen tried to hit AQAP again, this time reportedly with pilotless drones. A missile fired at a car driving through the mountainous Maarib region found its mark, but there were no terrorists inside. Instead, the victim was a deputy Yemeni governor who had been acting as a mediator, trying to get al Qaeda members to surrender. The killing enraged the slain man's tribe, who blew up an oil pipeline in retaliation, costing the Yemeni government $3 million per day in lost oil. The matter was settled only when the government paid off the tribe with a shipment of cars and weapons, says one Yemeni official. There haven't been any drone strikes since.
But the kill-or-capture-Awlaki strategy continues, even as it faces even more obstacles than those presented by the struggles of the Yemeni government. In the United States, the legality of the targeted assassination program has not been explicitly tested in open court. The government claims the authority to target people like Awlaki based on the authorization of military force granted by Congress in 2001, which allows for the targeting of al Qaeda members wherever they are found. In federal court recently, Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the reported inclusion of his son on the Pentagon's kill list, saying that the authority of the U.S. government to kill without a public trial and due process are strictly limited to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The geographic limits of the battlefield and the criteria for deciding who is actually a member of al Qaeda, and thus a legitimate target, are important issues that have not had a full public airing, civil libertarians note, especially as the Obama administration has greatly expanded the use of drones in its campaign against al Qaeda. But the hunt for the man intelligence officials call dangerous, even if they don't agree to what extent, is one that won't end until the military has Awlaki in custody, or dead.