May 8, 2010
Imams Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad
By SCOTT SHANE and SOUAD MEKHENNET
WASHINGTON 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.
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.
His mix of scripture and vitriol has helped lure young Muslims into a dozen plots. He cheered on the Fort Hood gunman and had a role in prompting the attempted airliner bombing on Dec. 25, intelligence officials say. And last week, Faisal Shahzad, who is charged in the attempted bombing in Times Square, told investigators that Mr. Awlakis prolific online lectures urging jihad as a religious duty helped inspire him to act.
At a time of new concern about the attraction of Western Muslims to violent extremism, there is no figure more central than Mr. Awlaki, who has harnessed the Internet for the goals of Al Qaeda. Counterterrorism officials are gravely concerned about his powerful appeal for many others who are following his path to radicalization.
Hes a magnetic character, said Philip Mudd, a veteran of the C.I.A.s Counterterrorism Center who just stepped down after nearly five years as a top F.B.I. intelligence adviser. Hes a powerful orator in a revolutionary movement.
Convinced that he is a lethal threat, the United States government has responded in kind. This year Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen on the C.I.A.s list of terrorists approved as a target for killing, a designation that has only enhanced his status with admirers like Shahidur Rahman, 27, a British Muslim of Bangladeshi descent who studied with Mr. Awlaki in London in 2003.
Other clerics equivocated about whether terrorist violence could be reconciled with Islam, Mr. Rahman said, but even seven years ago Mr. Awlaki made clear that he had few such qualms.
He said suicide is not allowed in Islam, Mr. Rahman said in an interview, but self-sacrifice is different.
There are two conventional narratives of Mr. Awlakis path to jihad. The first is his own: He was a nonviolent moderate until the United States attacked Muslims openly in Afghanistan and Iraq, covertly in Pakistan and Yemen, and even at home, by making targets of Muslims for raids and arrests. He merely followed the religious obligation to defend his faith, he said.
What am I accused of? he asks in a recent video bearing the imprint of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Of calling for the truth? Of calling for jihad for the sake of Allah? Of calling to defend the causes of the Islamic nation?
A contrasting version of Mr. Awlakis 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.
The tale that emerges from visits to his mosques, and interviews with two dozen people who knew him, is more complex and elusive. A product both of Yemens deeply conservative religious culture and freewheeling American ways, he hesitated to shake hands with women but patronized prostitutes. He was first enthralled with jihad as a teenager but the cause he embraced, the defeat of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, was then Americas cause too. After a summer visit to the land of the victorious mujahedeen, he brought back an Afghan hat and wore it proudly around the Colorado State campus in Fort Collins where he studied engineering.
Later, Mr. Awlaki seems to have tried out multiple personas: the representative of a tolerant Islam in a multicultural United States (starring in a WashingtonPost.com video explaining Ramadan); the fiery American activist talking about Muslims constitutional rights (and citing both Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown); the conspiracy theorist who publicly doubted the Muslim role in the Sept. 11 attacks. (The F.B.I., he wrote a few days afterward, simply blamed passengers with Muslim names.)
All along he remained a conservative, fundamentalist preacher who invariably started with a scriptural story from the seventh century and drew its personal or political lessons for today, a tradition called salafism, for the Salafs, or ancestors, the leaders of the earliest generations of Islam.
Finally, after the Yemeni authorities, under American pressure, imprisoned him in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Awlaki seems to have hardened into a fully committed ideologist of jihad, condemning non-Muslims and cheerleading for slaughter. His message has become indistinguishable from that of Osama bin Laden except for his excellent English and his cultural familiarity with the United States and Britain. Those traits make him especially dangerous, counterterrorism officials fear, and he flaunts them.
Jihad, Mr. Awlaki said in a March statement, is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.
Skinny Teenager With Brains
Twenty years ago, long before the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars that followed, a shy freshman named Anwar turned up at the little mosque in a converted church a short walk from the Colorado State campus. His American accent was misleading: born in New Mexico in 1971, when his father was studying agriculture there, he had lived in the United States until the age of 7.
But he had spent his adolescence in Yemen, where memorizing the Koran was a matter of course for an educated young man, and women were largely excluded from public life.
His father, Nasser, was a prominent figure who would serve as agriculture minister and chancellor of two universities and who was close to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the countrys authoritarian leader. Anwar was sent to Azal Modern School, among the countrys most prestigious private schools.
I recall Anwar as a skinny teenager with brains, said Walid al-Saqaf, a neighbor in the 1980s in Sana, the Yemeni capital. For boys of their generation, Afghanistan and its fight to oust the godless Soviet Army was the greatest cause.
There was constant talk of the heroes who were leaving Yemen to join the fight and become martyrs and go to paradise, recalled Mr. Saqaf, now a doctoral student in Sweden. In the Awlakis neighborhood, families would gather to watch the latest videotapes of the mujahedeen, he said.
But Nasser al-Awlaki had other ideas for his son, who studied civil engineering in Colorado in preparation for the kind of technocratic career his father had pursued. There was one odd note, given the familys relative wealth: just after arriving, Anwar applied for a Social Security number and claimed falsely he had been born in Yemen, evidently to qualify for scholarship money reserved for foreign citizens.
Yusuf Siddiqui, a fellow student who was active with Mr. Awlaki in the mosque and the Muslim Student Association, said there were regular reminders of his Yemeni upbringing.
If you made some pop culture reference, he might not recognize it, Mr. Siddiqui said. Once, Anwar astonished his Americanized friends by climbing a nearby mountain barefoot. He just said, Thats how we do it in Yemen, Mr. Siddiqui recalled.
Accustomed to Yemeni mores, he was not comfortable interacting with women. Once, when a female American student stopped by the Muslim Student Association to ask for help with math homework, He said to me in a low tone of voice, Why dont you do it? Mr. Siddiqui said.
Still, Mr. Awlaki was neither among the most conservative Muslim students nor among the libertines who tossed aside religious restrictions on drinking and sex. He ran successfully for president of the Muslim Student Association against a Saudi student who was far stricter.
I remember Anwar saying, He would want your mom to cover her face. Im not like that, Mr. Siddiqui said.
His vacation trip to Afghanistan, around the time the Soviet-backed Communist government fell from power, appears to have brought a new interest in the nexus of politics and religion. He wore an Eritrean T-shirt and the Afghan hat and quoted Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian scholar who provided theological justification for the Afghan jihad and was later known as a mentor to Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile, at the Islamic Center of Fort Collins, the little mosque where volunteers took turns giving the Friday sermon, Mr. Awlaki discovered a knack for preaching. If he could boast of no deep scholarship, he knew the Koran and the sayings of the prophet, spoke fluent English and had a light touch.
He was very knowledgeable, said Mumtaz Hussain, 71, a Pakistani immigrant active in the mosque for two decades. He was an excellent person very nice, dedicated to religion.
He expressed no anti-American sentiments, said Mr. Hussain, whose son served in the National Guard. This is our motherland now. People would not tolerate sermons of that kind, he said.
Years later, on his blog, Mr. Awlaki would compare Thomas Gradgrind, Charles Dickenss notoriously utilitarian headmaster in Hard Times, to some Muslim parents who are programmed to think that only medicine or engineering are worthy professions for their children.
It sounds like a hint at his own experience, and some family acquaintances say there was tension between Anwar and his father over career choices. But in 1994, Mr. Awlaki married a cousin from Yemen whom by custom he did not introduce to his male friends left behind engineering, and took a part-time job as imam at the Denver Islamic Society.
He Had a Beautiful Tongue
Like many an evangelical Christian pastor, Mr. Awlaki preached against vice and sin, lauded family values and parsed the scripture, winning fans and rising to successively larger mosques.
In Denver, however, there was an episode that might have been an omen. A Saudi student at the University of Denver told an elder that he had decided, with Mr. Awlakis encouragement, to travel to Chechnya to join the jihad against the Russians. The elder, a Palestinian American in his 60s, thought it ill advised and confronted Mr. Awlaki in a loud argument.
He had a beautiful tongue, recalled the elder, who asked not to be named. But I told him: Dont talk to my people about jihad. He left two weeks later.
At 25, he landed for five years at Arribat al-Islami, a stucco building with blue-green tile under a towering palm tree at the edge of San Diego. He lit up when he was with the youth, said Jamal Ali, 40, an airport driver. He played soccer with younger children and took teenagers paintballing. I saw him evolving in trying to understand where he fit into Islam, Mr. Ali said.
Lincoln W. Higgie III, 71, an art dealer who lived across quiet Saranac Street from the mosque and the small adjoining house where Mr. Awlaki lived with his wife and two toddlers, recalls an engaging neighbor who apologized about parking problems that came with the flood of Friday worshipers.
On Thursdays, Mr. Higgie remembered, Mr. Awlaki liked to go fishing for albacore, and he would often bring over a sample of the catch, deliciously prepared by his wife. The Awlakis son and daughter would play on Mr. Higgies floor, chasing his pet macaw, while the men compared notes on their travels.
I remember he was very partial to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Mr. Higgie said. He detected no hostility to non-Muslims, no simmering resentment against America.
In his private life, he was not always puritanical. Even as he preached about the sanctity of marriage amid the temptations of American life (especially in Western societies, every haram is available, he said, using the Arabic word for the forbidden), he was picked up twice by the San Diego police for soliciting prostitutes; he was given probation.
He displayed a very American entrepreneurial streak, exploring a possible business importing Yemeni honey and attending seminars in Las Vegas focused on investing in gold and minerals (and once losing $20,000 lent by relatives). Eventually a regular at the mosque proposed a venture that would prove hugely successful: recording Mr. Awlakis lectures on CD.
Starting in 2000, Mr. Awlaki would record a series of highly popular boxed sets three, totaling 53 CDs, devoted to the Life of Muhammad alone; others covering the lesser prophets of Islam (including Moses and Jesus), the companions of the prophet and an account of the hereafter.
The recordings appear free of obvious radicalism. (IslamicBookstore.com has added a notice to its Web listings of Mr. Awlakis work, saying the recording has been reviewed and does not contain any extremist statements.)
Shakir Muhammad, a Fort Collins engineer who is active in the mosque there, said he became a fan of the CD sets, finding them enthralling even on repeated listening. Only once did a passage give him pause; Mr. Awlaki discussed suicidal violence and did not quite condemn it.
I thought, This guy may be for it, Mr. Muhammad said. It bothered me.
A Mysterious Goodbye
One day in August 2001, Mr. Awlaki knocked at the door of Mr. Higgie, his neighbor, 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.
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 dont think youll be seeing me. I wont be coming back to San Diego again. Later on youll 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 Ladens 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.
Still more disturbing was Mr. Awlakis 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. Alhazmis 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 9/11 commission staff members themselves had sharp arguments about him. Do I think he played a role in helping the hijackers here, knowing they were up to something? said one staff member, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. Yes. Do I think he was sent here for that purpose? I have no evidence for it.
The separate Congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks suspected that Mr. Awlaki might have been part of a support network for the hijackers, said Eleanor Hill, its director. Theres no smoking gun. But we thought somebody ought to investigate him, Ms. Hill said.
Alarmed about Mr. Awlakis possible Sept. 11 connections, a State Department investigator, Raymond Fournier, found a circuitous way to charge Mr. Awlaki with passport fraud, based on his false claim after entering the United States in 1990 that he had been born in Yemen.
A warrant was issued, but prosecutors in Colorado rescinded it, concluding that no criminal case could be made. Mr. Awlaki returned from a trip abroad in October 2002 an act some colleagues say was evidence for his innocence of any 9/11 role for what would prove to be his last stay in the United States.
During that trip, he visited Ali al-Timimi, a Virginia cleric later convicted for encouraging Muslims to join the fight against American troops in Afghanistan. Mr. Awlaki attempted to get al-Timimi to discuss issues related to the recruitment of young Muslims, according to a motion filed in his criminal case. Mr. Timimi wondered if Mr. Awlaki might be trying to entrap him at the F.B.I.s instigation, his friends say.
But if Mr. Awlaki was cooperating with the government, it would have astonished his associates. As the American authorities rounded up Muslim men after 9/11, he had grown furious.
After raids in March 2002 on Muslim institutions and community leaders in Virginia, Mr. Awlaki led a chorus of outrage, noting that some of the targets were widely viewed as moderates.
So this is not now a war on terrorism, we need to all be clear about this, this is a war on Muslims! Mr. Awlaki declared, his voice shaking with anger. Not only is it happening worldwide, but its happening right here in America that is claiming to be fighting this war for the sake of freedom.
Around that time, Johari Abdul-Malik, a former Howard University chaplain who was joining the staff at Mr. Awlakis Virginia mosque, met him at a cafe. Mr. Awlaki said he planned to leave the United States.
I tried to convince him that the atmosphere was not as bad as he thought, that it was a positive time for outreach, Mr. Abdul-Malik recalled. But Mr. Awlaki was shaken by what he saw as an anti-Muslim backlash. And always fond of the limelight, Mr. Abdul-Malik said, Mr. Awlaki was looking for a bigger platform.
He said he might have a TV show for the gulf, Mr. Abdul-Malik said. He might run for Parliament in Yemen. Or he might teach.
Never Trust a Kuffar
In a bare lecture room in London, where Mr. Awlaki moved after leaving the United States, he addressed his rapt, young followers, urging them never to believe a non-Muslim, or kuffar in Arabic.
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!
The unbelievers are plotting to kill this religion, he declared. Theyre 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 cant believe CNN, the United Nations, or Amnesty International, he told his students, because they, too, were part of the war on Islam.
We need to wisen up and not be duped, Mr. Awlaki said. Malcolm X said, Weve been bamboozled.
Many of his young British Muslim listeners, accustomed to preachers with heavy accents and an otherworldly focus, were entranced by his mix of the ancient and the contemporary, his seamless transition from the 29 battles of the Prophet Muhammad to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was the main man who translated the jihad into English, said Abu Yahiya, 27, a Bangladeshi-British student of Mr. Awlakis lectures in 2003.
At a personal level, said Mr. Rahman, one of the students who studied with Mr. Awlaki in 2003, Mr. Awlaki made it clear that they could no longer pretend to be Muslims while going clubbing at night.
I could not be Mohammed in the morning and Mo in the evening, he said.
Mr. Awlakis demand that they make a choice, devoting themselves to a harsh, fundamentalist strain of Islam, offered clarity, he said.
It would hit the audience automatically in their hearts and minds, Mr. Rahman said. When others claimed the popular cleric was brainwashing them, Mr. Rahman said, When you got a lot of dirt in your brain, you need a washing. I believe he did brainwash me.
Mr. Awlakis fame grew, his CDs kept selling, and he traveled around Britain lecturing. But he had a hard time supporting himself, according to people who knew him, and in 2004 he had moved to Yemen to preach and study.
In mid-2006, after he intervened in a tribal dispute, Mr. Awlaki was imprisoned for 18 months by the Yemeni authorities. By his later account on his blog, he was in solitary confinement nearly the entire time and used it to study the Koran, to read literature (he enjoyed Dickens but disliked Shakespeare) and eventually, when it was permitted, to study Islamic scholarship.
Notably, he was enraptured by the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose time in the United States helped make him the father of the modern anti-Western jihadist movement in Islam.
Because of the flowing style of Sayyid I would read between 100 and 150 pages a day, Mr. Awlaki wrote. I would be so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly.
Two F.B.I. agents questioned him in the Yemeni prison, and Mr. Awlaki blamed the United States for his prolonged incarceration. He was right; John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Yemeni officials that the United States did not object to his detention, according to American and Yemeni sources.
But by the end of 2007, American officials, some of whom were disturbed at the imprisonment without charges of a United States citizen, signaled that they no longer insisted on Mr. Awlakis incarceration, and he was released.
He was different after that harder, said a Yemeni man who knows Mr. Awlaki well.
Mr. Awlaki started his own Web site, reaching a larger audience than ever. But finding that he was constantly followed by Yemeni security in Sana, the capital, he moved to the house of an uncle in Shabwa, the rugged southern province and his tribes traditional turf.
Last October, friends said, he heard the distant whine of a drone aircraft circling overhead. Worried that he was endangering his relatives, he fled to the mountains. While his role is unclear in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist networks Yemeni affiliate, American officials believe he has become operational, plotting, not just inspiring, terrorism against the West.
From his hide-out, Mr. Awlaki sends out the occasional video message. But his reported influence on the Times Square bombing suspect, Mr. Shahzad, suggests that no matter what happens to him, his electronic legacy is secure. His message will endure in hundreds of audio and video clips that his followers have posted to the Web, a mix of religious stories and incitement, awaiting the curious and the troubled.
Mr. Awlakis transformation has left a trail of bewilderment, apprehension and fury among many people who knew and worshiped with him in the United States. Mr. Siddiqui, his college friend, said he was surprised and disappointed.
Hes turning his back not only on the country where he was born but on his Muslim brothers and sisters in this country, he said.
Mr. Abdul-Malik said that his former fellow imam at the Virginia mosque is a terrorist, in my book and that Mr. Awlaki and his like-thinkers were trying to reduce Islam to a medieval narrative. Its the Hatfields and the McCoys: you hit me, I hit you.
Some Muslim families have asked whether they should keep Mr. Awlakis scriptural CDs, Mr. Abdul-Malik said. He tells them it is their decision, but he has advised shops not to carry even the earlier, benign Awlaki material.
Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Souad Mekhennet from London. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen.