Anwar al-Awlaki: Translator of jihad
By David Moon
On Christmas Day in the skies above Detroit, quick-acting passengers and crew
of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 along with a welcome piece of luck foiled
Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab's bid to win al-Qaeda's version of
immortality. The fallout, fortunately not flaming shards of aluminum, is
political and bureaucratic in nature.
As US President Barack Obama, for the second time addressing this subject,
acknowledged, "A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally
unacceptable ... There were bits of information available within the
intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together."
The substance of these remarks indicates that someone atop a
security or intelligence stovepipe will eventually take a pipe of a different
While the Obama administration attempts to come to grips with yet another set
of unconnected dots, the public discussion, so far, remains focused on
al-Qaeda's tactics instead of the bold strategy behind this attack.
The obvious, but it must be stated, is al-Qaeda's aim to raise its profile
abroad. Every bit as important is the necessity to raise its stature with
followers and potential followers in the US. Central to this strategy is the
rise of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen of Yemeni descent now based in that
Awlaki's life in the US is well documented. Notable are his close associations
with September 11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Hani Hanjour.
Most recent is Awlaki's relationship with Major Nidal Hasan, the alleged
assassin at the US military base at Fort Hood, Texas, begun at the Dar
al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia and continued via e-mail from Yemen.
Of prime importance to al-Qaeda is Awlaki's extensive understanding of US
politics, culture and mores earned by a highly intelligent, highly educated,
keenly articulate man. Adam Gadahn, al-Qaeda's previously favored US convert,
is nowhere near as effective in the communication and recruitment role.
An example of Awlaki's value to al-Qaeda is demonstrated in Osama bin Laden's
tone-deaf video message in 2004 on the eve of the US presidential election,
widely acknowledged to aid the George W Bush campaign late in a tight race. Bin
Laden's address in Arabic struck few chords in the United States. This
communications failure could also be indicative of reliance upon the youthful
Gadahn's limited understanding of US politics.
A recent opinion piece by Zahed Amanullah in The Guardian newspaper provides
insight into Awlaki's role with al-Qaeda. "Al-Awlaki also admits in his how-to
guide, '44 Ways to Support Jihad', that 'most of the jihad literature is
available only in Arabic and publishers are not willing to take the risk of
translating it', positioning himself as gatekeeper and importer to Western
Muslims of an otherwise foreign ideology."
Awlaki, simply put, is al-Qaeda's "translator of jihad", a high office in the
hierarchy of "The Base". As such, maintenance of his legend is of crucial
Amanullah contends that many English-speaking Muslims turned away after
Awlaki's endorsement of Nidal Hasan. The quick condemnation of the Fort Hood
shootings by US Muslim groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the
Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations
(CAIR) and others lends weight.
On his website, Awlaki wrote that US Muslims in rejecting the method and
violence of Hasan's alleged attack "committed treason against the Muslim ummah
[community] and have fallen into hypocrisy". This prickly, quickly produced,
unprecedented direct response offers powerful insight into Awlaki's own opinion
of his standing.
The blowback from Fort Hood soiled Awlaki's legend in the US, of prime
importance to al-Qaeda, to the point of repair. The plot to destroy Northwest
Airlines Flight 253 was an attempt to effect that repair.
Would-be martyr Abdulmuttalab is reported to have divulged Awlaki's involvement
in his preparations extending to service as spiritual leader. While
intelligence and security failures allowed Abdulmuttalab almost to complete his
mission, al-Qaeda planners would have also expected that Abdulmuttalab might be
arrested at any point along the way.
The foiled bombing left Abdulmuttalab to sing the praises of Awlaki, thus
boosting his reputation by dint of involvement in a spectacular al-Qaeda
strike, instead of being seen exclusively as the cheerleader of Hasan, who will
most certainly claim the insanity defense for the cowardly act of mass murder
at Fort Hood.
A December 28 analysis in The Times of London cites "informed reports that Mr
Abdulmuttalab met Mr al-Awlaki during his final weeks of training and
indoctrination for his supposed suicide mission". Widely reported is
Abdulmuttalab's admission to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that he
was only one of many terrorists, ready to attack, training in Yemen.
The dangerous implication: Abdulmuttalab was one of many "off the shelf" assets
available to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for insertion into any
operational plan. If "final weeks" can be defined as four to five weeks or
less, then Awlaki's participation was mission-specific.
If Abdulmuttalab had been successful, Awlaki would most certainly have been at
the center of al-Qaeda propaganda claiming credit. Either way, this foiled
strike designed to boost the reputation of one man, Awlaki, showcases his
Of equal importance in this scheme is the choice of target, Detroit. That
Abdulmuttalab did not attempt to bring down Flight 253 at any point along the
way, a result that would surely have been claimed by al-Qaeda as a success, is
proof positive of Detroit's significance.
Metro Detroit is home to the two largest mosques in the US, built in a Muslim
community of a density with no equal in that country. Al-Qaeda's plan, if
successful, seems designed to exacerbate already evident frictions between
Muslims and the FBI in the Detroit Metro and more widely between the US Muslim
community and the FBI.
Across the US, Islamic federations claim Muslims are unfairly targeted and
entrapped by the government and their civil liberties infringed to the point
where many of these groups have threatened to renounce cooperation with the
More specific to Detroit, much controversy surrounds an FBI raid that led to
the October 28 shooting of Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the imam of the Masjid
(mosque) al-Haqq. Imam Abdullah is alleged to have shot a police dog as FBI
agents tried to effect his arrest for mundane, in this context, charges of
receiving stolen goods and illegal possession of firearms. In return, the imam
was shot 18 times and died at the scene.
That Abdullah, originally Christopher Thomas, was a black man and a convert to
Islam has not limited groups such as CAIR from taking up his case alleging, yet
again, FBI entrapment. The delayed release of Abdullah's autopsy results only
stokes animosity and recriminations.
If Flight 253 had exploded in mid-air over Detroit, the FBI, with few leads
other than a passenger manifest, plane wreckage and al-Qaeda's claim of
responsibility might have faced little choice operationally and politically but
to step up the already controversial surveillance and investigation of the
One final wrinkle is Awlaki's message to the US Muslim community, "You cannot
run from al-Qaeda any more than the infidels can."
Understanding and exploiting fissures between the US government and the Muslim
community are important tasks delegated to Awlaki, but these are only tools in
service to his most valued vocation by al-Qaeda - translator/recruiter.
It is unclear whether Awlaki survived a December 24 air strike on an al-Qaeda
hideout in the mountains of Yemen's Shabwah region. In any case, Yemen looks
now to be too hot for him. Awlaki may be on the move to Somalia or Pakistan.
All that is necessary to accomplish his role could be as little as a laptop, a
video camera, Internet access and a prayer rug.
Awlaki's most important asset - his legend - as of Christmas Day is
(Copyright 2010 David Moon.)
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