Perhaps the most influential recruiter of jihad today doesn’t sit behind a computer screen in Syria or proposition disenfranchised Muslims in suburban mosques.
He speaks from the grave.
The poisonous rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, a smooth-talking American-born imam who taught Muslims in San Diego in the years leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become a constant factor in homegrown terror plots since his death five years ago.
It’s a phenomenon that law enforcement has found challenging to battle, as the massive volume of the cleric’s propaganda materials show no sign of being wiped from the internet any time soon.
“It’s like stamping out cockroaches,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward Gernat, assigned to San Diego’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Al-Awlaki’s virtual fingerprints were on the latest terror attack, when Ahmad Khan Rahami is suspected of setting off a bomb in Manhattan that injured 31 and detonating another explosive in New Jersey in September. Rahami, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen, left behind a notebook filled with ramblings about terrorists, including al-Awlaki.
And at least 57 other suspected terror plots in the United States have been partly inspired by al-Awlaki’s teachings since his death, according to research by New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Al-Awlaki, who in later years served as a senior recruiter for al-Qaeda, was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011, the target of a U.S. drone strike.
“It’s shocking and true that almost every American or European terrorist at some point during their radicalization in some way was influenced by al-Awlaki,” said Julie Shain, director of research for the Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit aiming to combat radical ideology. Her group’s research found that al-Awlaki has influenced at least 54 extremists in the U.S. and another 34 in Europe.
That includes Orlando, Fla., shooter Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub; Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Nidal Hasan, who emailed al-Awlaki before gunning down 13; and Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife murdered 14 people in a San Bernardino office building.
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tweeted three weeks before the blast: “Listen to Anwar al-Awlaki’s … here after series … you will gain an unbelievable amount of knowledge,” according to the Counter Extremism Project. Tsarnaev admitted he and his brother learned how to make the explosives by reading al-Qaeda’s Inspire, the English-language magazine created by al-Awlaki.
Experts attribute part of al-Awlaki’s success as an inspirational figure to the fact that he had a foot in two worlds — similar to many of the extremists he would inspire years later.
He was born in New Mexico, a first-generation American in a Yemeni family.
His father, a scholar who had been studying agriculture in the U.S., moved the family to Yemen when al-Awlaki was a child.
He returned in 1991 and graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in civil engineering, and enrolled at San Diego State University in 1999 in an educational leadership master’s degree program. He never finished his studies there.
“He’s as American as you are or as I am,” said Peter Bergen, a journalist who has extensively covered modern-day jihad and is director of international security at the New America think tank. Yet al-Awlaki also knew the realities of living in an immigrant family in the U.S., as well as an American abroad.
He preached at the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque on Saranac Street on the border of San Diego and La Mesa from 1996 to 2000.
It was the same mosque where two men who flew hijacked planes on 9/11 worshipped at the time. Investigators have not found anything to indicate al-Awlaki was part of the 9/11 plot.
Experts consider this era of his leadership a peaceful period. He professionally produced CDs and box sets of his lectures, mostly explaining the history and background of Islam. The lectures were widely distributed across the country, making him a well-known figure in the American Muslim community.
“He had a following of people, he didn’t just show up out of nowhere with violent rhetoric,” said FBI Agent Gernat. “He was a known entity. People listened to him and learned about religion from him. When he did tip over the edge, he had more of a following. That makes him different than any other recruiter.”
In 2000, the imam moved to Falls Church, Va., near Washington, D.C., to preach at the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center and later became the Muslim chaplain at George Washington University. His rise in the Muslim community gained him some prominence on Capitol Hill, and he publicly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks.
But post-9/11, he was also heavily investigated for possible ties to terrorism. As a result, law enforcement discovered al-Awlaki had a vice — prostitutes. Apparently afraid he may be exposed publicly, he left the U.S. for Britain in 2002. He continued his lectures and videos, and they became more and more radical.
“Slowly, surely they build a case for violence against Americans,” Shain said.
In one of his more watched speeches in London, al-Awlaki warns followers to “never, ever trust a kuffar,” or a non-Muslim.
“I’m not going to argue that your neighbor is not a nice person or your classmate, they truly might be decent and nice people. But brothers, when you make a judgment about kuffar, you do not make a judgment based on your neighbor.”
Instead, he urges followers to ignore the “Joe Sixpack” and “Sally Soccer Mom”they encounter in their lives because they are unimportant in the Koran’s eyes, advice that allows radicals to not feel guilt about terrorism in the West.
Al-Awlaki capitalized on the neofundamentalist idea, said SDSU religious studies professor Khaleel Mohammed, who teaches Islamic history and law.
“Many marginalized Muslims hearken back to a fabled time when they think Islam ruled the universe, and that such a time is possible again by reliving the past, achieved by living a particular life style,” Mohammed said.
By the time al-Awlaki was officially working for al-Qaeda, he was a popular figure in both conservative and radical Muslim circles.
And unlike 9/11 architect and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was first and foremost a financier, al-Awlaki was a cleric who knew how to reach people, experts say. He still does.
A YouTube search of his material brings up 60,000 to 70,000 hits in any given month, the Counter Extremism Project found, with many of those videos of his hours-long lectures or tribute videos made by others.
He comes across as charming and disarming as he lays out a blueprint for homegrown terror. His lectures are delivered in unaccented English that is both eloquent and colloquial and are peppered with pop culture references.
The fact that al-Awlaki had a legitimate body of work before he was radicalized makes it especially easy for mainstream Muslims to get sucked into his world, Gernat said.
“There aren’t a lot of people who had the reach he had in that world,” Gernat said.
How do you halt his influence? It’s not easy.
Removing the massive amount of lectures and propaganda from online won’t work. Too much of the material has been public for too long to be able to delete it from the internet, Gernat said.
And there are First Amendment concerns. Al-Awlaki’s lectures are protected free speech, especially his earlier lessons on Islam that don’t incite violence.
“There’s not a lot you can do,” Bergen said. He said social media companies can self-regulate and enforce their own terms of what is and isn’t appropriate, but it is up to them to do so. And where do you draw the line at which of his lectures to pull? All of them, or just the ones that incite specific violence?
The FBI is focusing its efforts on educating the public about how to spot radical propaganda and prevent it from taking hold on susceptible people. The agency’s “Don’t be a Puppet” online education program teaches youth to beware of all kinds of radicalization they or their classmates might encounter.
But it’s challenging when access to information keeps getting easier.
“Ten years ago when we told parents to make sure their kids were safe on the internet, we told them to put their computers in the living room where everyone can monitor what’s going on,” Gernat said.
“Now, everyone carries a smartphone. That message is coming in 24/7 and no one can monitor what’s going on,” he said.