Militant Islam's Global Preacher: The Radicalizing Effect of Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki
- Anwar al Awlaki is an American-born, inspirational cleric who preaches in support of violent jihad against the West.
- Broadcasting his messages in colloquial English over the internet, with videos or audio recordings of his lectures easily available on popular forums such as YouTube, Awlaki has made al Qaeda’s ideology accessible to English-speaking Muslims regardless of their geographic locations.
- His work has served as inspiration for many terrorists and would-be terrorists including those connected to the 7/7 bombings in London, the Toronto 18 group in Canada, and the Fort Dix plot in the U.S. Awlaki’s name also surfaces in direct connection with the 9/11 attack, the Virginia Jihad Network, the Fort Hood shooting, and the Christmas Day attack.
- The U.S. government now recognizes Awlaki as a direct threat to national security because of his ability to inspire radical Islamists to commit violent acts and because of indications that Awlaki has moved beyond the role of a propagandist. Analysts credit Awlaki with an ability to recruit potential terrorists into the ranks of such organizations as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The threat posed by Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki to the United States is different than that posed by other clerics in the global jihad movement. Awlaki has served as an inspirational cleric for radical Muslims around the world for over ten years and may now serve as a recruiter for the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Moreover, Awlaki’s ability to speak of violent jihad in colloquial English has made his radical message accessible to a broad spectrum of geographically dispersed, English-speaking Muslims via the internet. His audience – predominately young British and American Muslims – can access the radical Islamist ideology through Awlaki’s treatises and translation. Previously, only those possessing a strong command of the Arabic language and those geographically close to radical imams could easily access Islamist texts promoting violent jihad. Awlaki changed this, making the study of radical Islam possible for anyone with access to a computer and a basic grasp of English.
Awlaki has been connected to a number of recent successful or would-be terrorists, including the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan. His name also surfaces in connection with nearly a dozen recent cases of terrorism in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, including the Virginia Jihad Network, the 7/7 bombers, the Toronto 18, the Fort Dix plot, and 9/11. The repeated appearance of Awlaki’s name in connection with terrorist acts shows the strong effect that Awlaki has on inspiring radical Islamists and the prominence of his messages within the global Islamist network.
Awlaki broadcasts his messages over the internet and his translations and work are widely available on radical Islamist sites. He also ran a website, “Imam Anwar’s Blog,” through which visitors could contact him. In addition, there are indications that Awlaki has begun to work directly with the leadership of AQAP, marking a shift away from an ideological role to an increasingly operational one that is played by clerics within the global jihad movement. As he moves into a more definite role within AQAP, Awlaki blurs the line between preacher and terrorist.
Anwar al Awlaki is a Yemeni-American who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico on April 22, 1971. Awlaki was seven years old when his father finished his master’s degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University and the family returned to live in a new neighborhood in Sana’a, Yemen. His father, Nasser al Awlaki, became the president of Sana’a University in 2001, after having served as the president of another university; the elder Awlaki also previously served as the Minister of Agriculture for two years and as an economic adviser to the president for four years. Anwar al Awlaki received his primary and secondary school education in Yemen. He returned to the U.S. in 1991 with a Yemeni government scholarship to attend Colorado State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Civil Engineering. In 1993, prior to his graduation, Awlaki went to Afghanistan, a visit that fellow CSU students say had a profound effect on him. Upon his return, Awlaki successfully applied to become an imam of the Denver Islamic Society. In 1996, he moved to San Diego to pursue a Master’s in Education Leadership from San Diego State University. Awlaki continued his work as an imam once he was in San Diego by taking a position at the Rabat mosque.
Intelligence officials believe that it was during his time in San Diego, from 1996 to 2000, that Awlaki first made contact with terrorists. In 1998 and 1999, tax records indicate that Awlaki served as the vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, Inc., a branch of a Yemen-based charity that federal prosecutors have said was a front-charity that funneled funds to support al Qaeda. The charity was founded by Yemeni Sheikh Abd al Majid al Zindani, who was listed as a U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department in February 2004.
While in San Diego, Awlaki drew the attention of investigators through his contact with others under investigation. The FBI opened a counterterrorism inquiry into his activities in June 1999, but closed it nine months later. In 2000, two of the 9/11 hijackers began to attend the Rabat mosque, where he was an imam. Awlaki moved to Falls Church, Virginia in January 2001 to work on a doctorate at George Washington University, where he became the university’s Muslim chaplain. He also served as an imam at the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, where he would again come into contact with a few of the 9/11 hijackers.
After 9/11, Awlaki once again came under the scrutiny of investigators despite having vocalized his disapproval of the attacks. This investigation revealed that Awlaki had twice been arrested for soliciting prostitutes in San Diego, once in 1996 and again in 1997. The FBI sought to bring similar charges against him in Virginia, where he had allegedly been observed taking Washington-area prostitutes into Virginia. He left the U.S. abruptly in March 2002.
Awlaki was back on the radar by July 2002 – he received a money transfer from an individual under investigation by the Houston Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Awlaki’s name was added to the early version of the federal terror watch list, and investigators realized that he had lied on his F-1 foreign student visa, stating that he had been born in Yemen. Authorities charged Awlaki with passport fraud, and a federal judge signed an arrest warrant in October 2002. That same month, Awlaki returned to the U.S. to see Ali al Timimi, a U.S. citizen now serving a life sentence for soliciting others to wage war on the U.S. The FBI detained Awlaki at New York City’s JFK Airport on October 10, 2002, but the warrant for his arrest had been revoked the day before by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, despite Awlaki’s name being on the terror watch list and the supervising prosecutor having been fully briefed on Awlaki’s suspected terror ties. A former agent with the San Diego JTTF commented on the decision to revoke the warrant, saying that it “was a missed opportunity to get this guy under wraps so we can look at him . . . he couldn’t cause harm from a prison cell.” Awlaki was released from custody in the airport and permitted to continue with his visit.
Awlaki has not returned to the U.S. since he left in October 2002. He spent about two years in London: in 2003, several conferences hosted by U.K. organizations such as the Muslim Association of Britain and the Young Muslim Organization featured Awlaki as a speaker. In 2004, Awlaki moved to Yemen, where he has resided since. He began to preach on a regular basis at a mosque in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, in the Sunayna slums, and published a series of editorials for the Yemen Observer, an English-language, pro-government newspaper. Awlaki also lectured at Iman University in Sana’a, which al Zindani heads. Al Zindani founded the university in 1995 and it now has 4,000 students, around 500 of whom are foreigners. The university is renowned for its radical tendencies – former students have turned up fighting in Afghanistan, and others were arrested for the assassination of three American missionaries in Yemen and the number two of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Its alumni have also included the American John Walker Lindh, who later joined the Taliban.
On August 31, 2006, Yemeni authorities arrested Awlaki for suspected ties to al Qaeda and connections to terrorist attacks, but he was never officially charged with any crime. Authorities detained Awlaki for eighteen months and released him on December 12, 2007, saying that he had repented. Awlaki blamed the U.S. for pressuring the Yemeni government into arresting him – purportedly a Yemeni Secret Police investigation led to his arrest – and has claimed that the FBI conducted some of his interrogations. According to the senior chief of the Awalik tribe, to which Awlaki belongs, after Awlaki was released from prison, he took refuge in Saeed, a small village in Shabwah province, a province east of Sana’a with a known al Qaeda presence. There, Awlaki has benefitted from the protection of his powerful tribe, which has connections in the government, and the rugged geography of the region. Even though he removed himself from the public eye, Awlaki continued to publish messages and translations on the internet and was able to build up a substantial international following.
Many of his public messages released after his imprisonment in Yemen supported radical Islamist ideology and advocated for violence against the West. In August 2009, the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council banned Awlaki from speaking via video link at a London fundraising event for the defense of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay because of his expressed viewpoints. Awlaki has denied the claim that he backed attacks on British troops and supported al Qaeda-linked groups. However, Awlaki had already begun to preach of the obligation of jihad that is incumbent upon every Muslim. This jihad was not the internal struggle of jihad observed by many devout and mainstream Muslims; rather, it was direct, violent confrontation with the West. In January 2009, Awlaki released a key article, “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” which outlines the obligation of violent jihad on every Muslim, which can be fulfilled by assuming either a direct or supporting role. The theme of violent jihad appeared again in an August 1, 2009 message from Awlaki referring to a clash between Yemeni government troops and AQAP militants in which he proclaimed, “May this be the beginning of the greatest Jihad of the Arabian Peninsula.” Finally, on October 7, 2009, in a post on his website, Awlaki argued that Yemen might become the most important front for global violent jihad.
Despite his radical messaging, it was not until after November 5, 2009 that Awlaki became broadly recognized as an imminent threat to U.S. national security. On that day, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, opened fire in the Soldier Readiness Center of Fort Hood, killing thirteen people and wounding thirty others. The ensuing investigation turned up Awlaki’s name in connection with Hasan, and Awlaki praised Hasan’s actions as heroic on his website after the shooting.
Yemeni authorities contacted Awalik tribe members shortly after the attack to ask that Awlaki return to Sana’a for closer surveillance. Reportedly, Awlaki said that he was “not going to let the government tell [him] where to live” and went into hiding in the mountains fearing arrest. Officials believe that, during this time, Awlaki met with the future Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and connected with a group of al Qaeda militants in Shabwah, including Fahd al Quso, who was accused by the U.S. of playing a role in the 2000 USS Cole bombing. A more definitive connection to AQAP, if true, is the report that Awlaki was present at a meeting with Nasser al Wahayshi and Said al Shihri, AQAP’s number one and number two, on December 24, 2009. An airstrike on the suspected location that same day targeted Wahayshi and Shihri, and initial reports included Awlaki among the possible dead. A week after the airstrike, Awlaki contacted a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Hider Shaea, saying that he was still alive. Since the strike, al Jazeera published an interview with Awlaki in February 2010 focusing on his connections to Abdulmutallab; however, it did not include when and where the interview occurred.
IDEOLOGY AND MESSAGE DISSEMINATION
Awlaki is a proponent of radical Islamist thought, and believes that jihad against the West is an obligation borne by all Muslims. He lacks substantial formal Islamic education; what training he does have consists of only a few sporadic months of study under various scholars. Questions about his scholastic credentials prompted Awlaki to detail his background on his website. Even though he never earned a degree in Islamic studies, many young, English-speaking Muslims nevertheless respect him as a scholar. Awlaki excels at summarizing al Qaeda philosophy into easily understood English treatises, making it available to a much broader audience than al Qaeda could reach previously. He has reached out in support of other radical Islamist groups, such as Somalia’s al Shabaab and his work has received recognition from them. He wrote a letter on December 21, 2008, “Salutations to al-Shabab of Somalia,” in which he asks Allah to “grant them success.” Six days later, on December 27, 2008 a reply from al Shabaab praised Awlaki for “defend[ing] the honor of the mujahideen” and expressed admiration for his work, saying “Allah knows how many of the brothers and sisters have been affected by your work.” Awlaki’s recent major publication, “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” was posted on his website in early January 2009 and details the different means by which Muslims can fulfill their duty to carry on jihad.
Awlaki has disseminated his message through sermons at mosques, tape recordings, written treatises and videos published on online forums, and his own website. Recently, Western, primarily British, universities even had links to his website and his published work on their websites. Even as he has avoided in-person public appearances, Awlaki has not desisted from speaking to his Western audience and continued to post on his own website and in open online forums where he could lecture and directly answer questions. A January 2009 intelligence document that was obtained by the Associated Press stated that about 11% of the visitors to Awlaki’s website were in the U.S., prior to the shuttering of the website. Moreover, a distribution company reported that the sale of tape recordings of Awlaki’s sermons has exceeded 5 million copies in the U.S. and the West. Analysts have also noted that Awlaki is incredibly easy to contact – his website, “Imam Anwar’s Blog,” had a link enabling followers to “contact the sheikh” via email with their questions and Awlaki’s contact numbers have been widely distributed.
An Influential Message: “Constants on the Path of Jihad”
One of Awlaki’s best known and most widely disseminated lectures is his series entitled, “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” which has also surfaced in connection with various terrorist plots in Britain, Canada, and the U.S. In the six-part lecture series, Awlaki translates and comments on the book of Sheikh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree, Thawaabit ‘ala Darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad). It is one of Awlaki’s most well-known works and is available through popular internet forums, such as YouTube. In his lectures, Awlaki reads the Arabic text and then translates what he has just read into English. In addition to the translation, Awlaki also offers his commentary on what the text means for Muslims. The series outlines Awlaki’s fundamental belief that violent jihad is an obligation on every Muslim – and it presents an argument for this belief. Awlaki emphasizes that jihad itself is a fard al ‘ayn, an individual duty, for Muslims and that there are no geographical or temporal constraints upon the obligation of jihad. Additionally, Awlaki examines the idea of victory and defeat in jihad and challenges the idea that victory is limited to the battlefield and that death or failure is defeat. Instead, he lists eleven ways to achieve victory that cover personal victories to victory against the “devil” to victory in the battlefield. To complement this, Awlaki also presents eight different components of defeat that include acceptance of or obedience to the kuffar (infidels), the loss of hope in victory, abandoning jihad, and fearing the enemy instead of Allah.
Experts describe Awlaki’s lecture series as a “virtual bible” for radical Islamists that lays out al Qaeda’s terror strategy. A large number of the English-speaking radical Islamists who have executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets were in possession of copies of this lecture series:
7/7 Bombings: On July 7, 2005, a coordinated attack on London’s public transportation system killed 52 people and wounded over 700 others. The Iqra bookshop in Leeds, where the bombers conducted their meetings, carried lectures by Awlaki. Additionally, accomplices of the suicide bombers were found to be in possession of his work.
Toronto 18: Authorities arrested eighteen men on June 2, 2006, referred to in the press as the Toronto 18. Members of the group planned a three-day attack on the downtown of Toronto that involved three U-Haul trucks packed with explosives and parked at the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Front Street offices of Canada’s spy agency, and a military base off of Highway 401 between Toronto and Ottawa. If all went well, the group then had designs for an attack on the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, in Chicago or the UN building in New York City. The group listened to Awlaki’s lectures on one of their laptops at a “training camp” near Barrie in Canada six months prior to their arrest, and his works were later found on the group’s computer hard drives.
Fort Dix Plot: In 2007, five men, immigrants from Jordan, Turkey and Albania, trained in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains for an attack on the Fort Dix base in New Jersey. One of the men, Shain Duka, was recorded on a surveillance tape talking about an audio clip of Awlaki’s. He called Awlaki’s interpretation of Muslim duties “the truth, no holds barred, straight how it is!”  Court records indicate that three out of the five men who were convicted for plotting the attack on the soldiers in Fort Dix were inspired by Awlaki’s “Constants on the Path of Jihad” lecture series.  An informant, Besnik Bakalli, testified that the men believed that the lecture they heard gave a fatwa to strike in the U.S.
The accessibility of Awlaki’s message on the internet permitted his work to be widely distributed and Awlaki became one of the key proponents of radical Islamist ideology among English-speaking Muslims. Awlaki has been on the FBI’s radar screen since 1999; however, there has not been sufficient evidence to tie him directly to an operational role in any of the plots since or before then. His name has surfaced in various investigations of terror attacks on primarily American, but also British and Canadian, targets. For example, British investigators discovered transcripts and audio files of Awlaki’s lectures advocating the tactics of the late Yusef al Ayeri, a key al Qaeda military commander on the computers of several suspects in British terrorism cases. In some terrorism cases, such as the Toronto 18, there is no evidence that Awlaki himself had direct contact with the plotters; nevertheless, his published material clearly had an ideological influence on them. The most recent attack, the one attempted on Christmas Day, indicates that Awlaki has progressively moved away from preaching towards a more operational role in the execution of terror attacks.
The extent of Awlaki’s role in the preparation for 9/11 is unclear; however, there is sufficient evidence to link him to two of the 9/11 hijackers: Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. As the FBI agent who was responsible for the 9/11 investigation told the Congressional Joint Inquiry staff, “there’s a lot of smoke there” regarding Awlaki’s connection to Hazmi and Mihdhar. The FBI had opened a counterterrorism inquiry into Awlaki’s activities in June 1999 that revealed his connections with “a number of other persons of investigative interest,” including a person connected to Sheikh Omar Abd al Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Approximately two months after the future hijackers’ arrival in San Diego in March 2000, the FBI closed the inquiry into Awlaki’s activities despite these connections.
Awlaki exchanged four phone calls in February 2000 with Omar al Bayoumi, a Saudi who worked with Hazmi and Mihdhar. Investigators believe that the future hijackers used Bayoumi’s cell phone during this time period. The 9/11 Commission Report noted that Awlaki may have been a “potentially significant San Diego contact for Hazmi and Mihdhar” and that the pair developed a close relationship with him during their time at his mosque. After 9/11, however, the FBI reported to the Congressional Joint Inquiry that he was a “spiritual leader” to the community and that hundreds of Muslims associated with him. Awlaki had contact with the future hijackers in San Diego, but also in Falls Church, Virginia, when they began attending the Dar al Hijrah mosque. Hazmi relocated to Falls Church shortly thereafter and in April began attending services at the Dar al Hijrah mosque with a third future hijacker, Hani Hanjour. Hazmi met a Jordanian contact, Eyad al Rababah, at the Dar al Hijrah mosque, who helped him find an apartment in the area and later drove Hazmi and two other hijackers to Connecticut. Subsequent FBI investigations into Awlaki’s terrorist connections did not turn up strong enough evidence with which to prosecute him.
Virginia Jihad Network: Awlaki Maintains Connections
In June 2003, the FBI charged eleven men, nine of whom were American citizens, with conspiring to train for and participate in violent jihad overseas. Members of the group, called the Virginia Jihad Network by the prosecuting attorney, had purchased and distributed weapons and traveled to Pakistan to train with Lashkar-e-Taiba. Awlaki’s contact with Ali al Timimi, the Islamic scholar who led the Virginia Jihad network, is Awlaki’s primary connection to the group. Awlaki met with al Timimi in October 2002 when he returned to the U.S. for the last time. Court records indicate that a member of the group drove Awlaki to the meeting. There, Awlaki reportedly asked al Timimi about the recruitment of young Muslims for jihad.
In 2003, federal agents raided al Timimi’s home, where they seized documents and cassettes as evidence against him. He was sentenced in 2005 to life in prison for “soliciting others to wage war against the U.S., counseling others to attempt to aid the Taliban; counseling others to violate the Neutrality Act, and counseling others to use firearms and explosives in furtherance of crimes of violence.” Prosecutors said that al Timimi “wielded enormous influence” among the group of young Muslim men that he led and three of those men later testified that it was his speech that inspired them to try to join the Taliban to fight against the U.S. in Afghanistan.
Awlaki’s October 2002 visit with al Timimi is not Awlaki’s only connection to the Virginia Jihad Network. Investigators later uncovered that one member of the group had Awlaki’s number saved on his cell phone. Like al Timimi, Awlaki is an influential imam who attracts others to the pursuit of violent jihad.
Fort Hood: Awlaki Provides Justification
On November 5, 2009 Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, killing thirteen people and wounded thirty others. An investigation into what was one of the worst killing sprees to have been reported on a U.S. military base quickly uncovered a troubling connection to Awlaki. The two had first met nine years earlier when Awlaki was an imam at Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, the same mosque that future 9/11 hijackers attended. There had been no known contact between Awlaki and Hasan until the end of 2008, when Hasan initiated contact. U.S. investigators had been aware for months that Hasan had been in email contact with Awlaki, and these emails came under renewed scrutiny following the attack. The email correspondences were passed on to the JTTF in Washington, where an investigator looked into Hasan’s personnel files. The files did not contain information from Hasan’s colleagues regarding his opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor his opposition to Muslims fighting other Muslims – both of which Hasan had expressed openly to fellow officers. The investigator concluded in the spring of 2009 that the correspondences between Hasan and Awlaki did not constitute a terrorist threat. He wrote that the content of the messages were within the scope of Hasan’s research on post-traumatic stress disorder and that there was no suggestion of violence. No further action was recommended by the investigator.
The email correspondence and contact with Awlaki, however, seems to have played a significant role in influencing Hasan’s decision to execute the attack, more so than the indications that Hasan had already begun to question his role in the U.S. Army. Hasan contacted Awlaki seeking justification for his beliefs, and it was not until after their email correspondence that Hasan put his plan into action. Prior to Hasan’s contact with Awlaki, he had already expounded on his belief that Muslims should not be forced to fight other Muslims. In a June 2007 Power Point presentation, entitled, “The Koranic World View as it Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military,” Hasan spoke of how it is becoming harder for Muslims to justify fighting in an army engaged in combat with other Muslims. He added that the “Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as ‘Conscientious objectors’ to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.” In his emails to Awlaki, Hasan openly questioned the duty of a Muslim serving in the U.S. Army. Reportedly, Hasan wrote up to 21 emails to Awlaki and received two emails in reply. Moreover, Awlaki posted on his website, “Imam Anwar’s Blog,” criticism of Muslim soldiers who fight other Muslims. “What kind of twisted fight is this?” he wrote in July 2009. The Muslim soldier who executes orders to kill fellow Muslims “is a heartless beast, bent of evil, who sells his religion for a few dollars.”
Awlaki revealed much of the information contained in the correspondences between Hasan and himself in an interview with al Jazeera published in December 2009. According to Awlaki, Hasan first contacted him via email on December 17, 2008. In this first email, Hasan requested that Awlaki “ask Allah to protect and solidify him” and, reportedly, asked “whether killing American soldiers and officers is lawful or not” as a Muslim soldier. At this point, the interviewer noted that this question had come nearly a year before Hasan executed the attack, to which Awlaki replied, “Yes, and I wonder where were the American security forces that one day claimed they can read the numbers of any license plate, anywhere in the world, from space,” criticizing the capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies. In the rest of his email correspondence, Awlaki said that Hasan laid out his viewpoint on the legitimacy of killing Israeli civilians, coming out in support of it through shari’a-based reasoning for “targeting Jews with rockets,” and asked about how to transfer money to Awlaki as a charity contribution.
Awlaki verbalized his support of Hasan’s actions and declared that fighting against the U.S. Army is an Islamic duty. Three days after Hasan’s shooting spree, Awlaki posted on his website:
Shortly thereafter, the website was taken down. In the al Jazeera interview, Awlaki commented further on Hasan’s “heroic act.” He stated that he agreed with the operation and that he openly stated his opinion in order to counter the condemnation of the act voiced in the West. Awlaki supported Hasan’s target selection, noting that it was an American military target and that “working in the American Army to kill Muslim is a betrayal to Islam.” Awlaki added, however, that he did not recruit Hasan, but admitted that he may have had “a role in the intellectual direction of Nidal.” Hasan sought out Awlaki for counseling on the legality, in shari’a law, of an attack on U.S. Army personnel and Awlaki’s answers led Hasan to execute the attack.
Christmas Day Attack: Awlaki’s New Role
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25, 2009. The explosive device, hidden in his underwear, failed to detonate and authorities arrested Abdulmutallab when the plane landed. Subsequent questioning of the 23-year-old Nigerian revealed that Abdulmutallab had spent time in Yemen and claims to have met Awlaki while he lived there in fall 2009. Abdulmutallab graduated from the University College London in 2008 and served as president of its Islamic society from 2006 to 2007. UK officials deny that he was radicalized during his stay in London; further analysis of his time there has uncovered peripheral connections to other intelligence investigations, though nothing that indicates an operational role for Abdulmutallab. Collected evidence on Abdulmutallab shows that he was a devoted follower of Awlaki and frequented Awlaki’s website. Additionally, the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted phone communications between al Awlaki and Abdulmutallab, according to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. Exactly how Abdulmutallab ended up connecting with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not clear; however, intelligence officials believe that he went to Yemen at Awlaki’s invitation.
Abdulmutallab enrolled in the Institute for Arabic Language in Yemen in the fall of 2009, though officials from the institute report that Abdulmutallab did not attend classes after Ramadan ended.  It is believed that Abdulmutallab traveled to Shabwah province in Yemen, an al Qaeda stronghold, where he may have met with Awlaki and separately received training for the December 25 attack. Abdulmutallab has not only confessed to investigators that he acquired the explosives PETN and TATP in Yemen, which were then used in his explosive device, but also that he received guidance from Awlaki. According to Abdulmutallab, Awlaki told him to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, unlike the failed British plot in 2006. In a second al Jazeera interview, published on February 2, 2010, Awlaki confirmed that there was “some contact” between himself and Abdulmutallab, but clarified that he did not issue a fatwa for the operation. Though Awlaki stated his support for Abdulmutallab’s actions, he added that it “would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a U.S. military target.” However, he added, since the American people twice elected President George Bush and then elected President Barack Obama, the people “take part in all its government’s crimes.”
Awlaki’s reported role in the execution of the Christmas Day attack denotes a significant change from his role in the Fort Hood shooting. Instead of providing the inspiration and shari’a-based legal rationale for violent acts, Awlaki appeared to serve as a connection to AQAP operatives in Yemen for Abdulmutallab. As a cleric, Awlaki can guide individuals towards embracing radical Islamist ideology and connect them to trainers and operational planners. Circumstantial evidence based on the reports of a meeting attended by Wahayshi, Shihri, and Awlaki supports the conclusion that Awlaki has moved into the ranks of AQAP and that Awlaki has worked to promote further the ideology of the organization. If it is true that Awlaki directly mentored Abdulmutallab while Abdulmutallab was in Yemen training for his attack, then this would be a clear indication that Awlaki had moved into an operational role for AQAP. This shift is not without precedent for clerics within the global jihad movement.
Over the past ten years, Awlaki has increasingly become a proponent of violent jihad. He has expounded on and offered commentary on radical Islamist works and has made works crucial to understanding the ideology of al Qaeda accessible to English-speakers. In his lecture series, “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” Awlaki argued that jihad is an Islamic duty for every Muslim. As a complement to his lectures, Awlaki then outlined how to fulfill this duty in his “44 Ways to Support Jihad.” Awlaki has also clearly stated his opposition against the West and his hope that jihad will succeed, and has openly advocated violence against the U.S. In the fall of 2009, Awlaki posted on his website, “I pray that Allah destroys America and all its allies. And the day that happens, and I assure you it will and sooner than you think, I will be very pleased.”
Anwar al Awlaki is not just a cleric; he is someone who has inspired others to pursue violent jihad. Like other clerics within the global jihad movement, he has transformed his role as a religious mentor into one that advocates the adoption of the ideology espoused by AQAP. Awlaki’s email correspondence with Hasan pushed Hasan to carry out the attack on Fort Hood; however, Awlaki reportedly directed Abdulmutallab to detonate his bomb on U.S. soil and played a role in the terrorist plot beyond just providing religious advice. The presence of other English speakers at the terrorist training camp that Abdulmutallab attended in Yemen, revealed to investigators by Abdulmutallab, may indicate that Awlaki’s messages attracted others to adopt violent jihad. If the report that Awlaki met with the top leaders of AQAP is true, it is possible that Awlaki has taken a more operational role within the organization as a recruiter. U.S. intelligence officials believe that Awlaki was a driving force in shifting AQAP’s attention towards U.S. interests.  Whether Awlaki actually operates within the organization or not, he can be credited with attracting new English-speaking members to join terrorist organizations.
Awlaki is more than just an inspirational cleric and a potential AQAP operative. He has not only made al Qaeda ideology easily accessible to English-speakers on the internet, but he has also inspired and encouraged Muslims around the world to adopt violent jihad. As John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said, “Al-Awlaki is a problem. . . He’s not just a cleric. He is in fact trying to instigate terrorism.” Awlaki’s threat to the U.S. stems not from his capacity to operationalize terrorist plots; rather, it comes from his ability to attract Muslims previously isolated from radical Islamist ideology. Awlaki’s connection to such terrorist attacks as 9/11 and the Christmas Day attempt, as well as the repeated appearance of his name in other terrorist cases, denotes a larger role for him in the global jihad movement than that of a cleric. He is, and should be treated as such, an influential figure encouraging and driving others to undertake violent jihad.