The Enduring Influence of Anwar al-Awlaki in the Age of the Islamic State
July 27, 2016
Abstract: Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the leading English-language propagandist for al-Qa`ida, was killed in an American drone strike in 2011. But his influence has lived on into the Islamic State era, enhanced by his status as a martyr for Islam in the eyes of his admirers. His massive internet presence has turned up as a factor in several attacks since his death, including most recently the San Bernardino shootings and the Orlando nightclub attack as well as a significant number of terrorism cases on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite his long association with al-Qa`ida and that network’s rivalry with the upstart Islamic State, al-Awlaki has been embraced by the Islamic State and its followers, and he continues to inspire terrorism from beyond the grave.
After Omar Mateen’s shooting rampage in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June, an older acquaintance from his mosque revealed that he had called the FBI about the troubled young man in 2014. Mateen had told Mohammed Malik he had been watching a lot of videos of the deceased Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and found them “very powerful,” and the older man was concerned. Malik knew that another Muslim man from the same community had become a suicide bomber in Syria, leaving behind a videotaped interview in which he recounted how al-Awlaki’s messages had encouraged him on his path to violent jihad.[a]
After getting Malik’s tip, the FBI looked into Mateen, found no threat, and closed the case. In retrospect, his fascination with al-Awlaki appears to be a significant milepost on the path that ended with 49 killed at the Pulse nightclub, the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. Nor was the influence of al-Awlaki, a charismatic American preacher who became al-Qa`ida’s most effective English-language recruiter, a surprise. For years, when an American or a Canadian or a Briton has turned up in jihadist terrorism, investigators have routinely discovered a long trail of al-Awlaki material on his computer.
The fifth anniversary of al-Awlaki’s death at the age of 40 in an American drone strike in northern Yemen on September 30, 2011, is approaching. Ordered by President Barack Obama after a secret legal review, the volley of missiles that killed al-Awlaki marked an historic moment. Whether applauded or condemned, it was the first deliberate killing of a U.S. citizen by his own government on presidential orders and without criminal charges or trial since the Civil War.
In a major speech on the drone campaign at the National Defense University in 2013, Obama compared his decision to target al-Awlaki to a justified police shooting. “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America, and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot,” the president said, “his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team. That’s who Anwar Awlaki was—he was continuously trying to kill people.”
In the years since his death, new evidence has emerged to underscore Obama’s central point that al-Awlaki was putting his considerable talent and energy into trying to kill Americans and other Western non-Muslims. In late May in Manhattan, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam, Minh Quang Pham, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after describing how al-Awlaki had taught him how to make a bomb and instructed him to blow himself up at London’s Heathrow airport, advising him to try to kill Americans and Israelis.
But what has also become abundantly clear is that killing al-Awlaki did not put an end to his most important role as online recruiter for global jihad. No figure in jihadist propaganda has eclipsed his well-established brand. He remains as relevant to a new generation of American jihadis inspired by the Islamic State as he was to their predecessors whose allegiance was to al-Qa`ida. The author has found evidence of al-Awlaki’s influence in more than half of U.S. jihadist terrorism cases in the years since his death.[b] Others have also observed al-Awlaki’s continued appeal. “I think his continuing popularity has a lot to do with the fact that he died as a martyr,” notes Seamus Hughes, who tracks jihadist propaganda at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “We see these ISIS fighters quote him online and offline.” According to Hughes, in the process of embracing militancy “there’s a level of mood music necessary—people become radicalized before they become violent. And Awlaki provides that mood music.”
That al-Awlaki’s influence would become so ubiquitous years after his demise was no certainty, though some Muslim commentators warned of the possibility. When the Islamic State made its splashy rise, partially eclipsing its venerable parent, al-Qa`ida, it was certainly conceivable that al-Awlaki would be consigned to the has-beens of the jihadist movement. But remarkably, the opposite happened. In the age of the online video, popular figures can live on digitally as they never could before. The number of hits for “Anwar al-Awlaki” on YouTube climbed from 40,000 in 2013 to over 65,000 by late June 2016.[c]
Perhaps because al-Awlaki was killed before the emergence of the Islamic State as a bitter global jihadi rival to al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State and its followers saw no obstacle to embracing him despite his track record as an al-Qa`ida preacher. His appeal and influence have transcended divisions between the global jihadist powerhouses and persist in the Islamic State era.
Inspiring a New Generation
This posthumous popularity has had consequences. Since his death, al-Awlaki’s name has surfaced in dozens of minor terrorism cases in the West. More alarmingly, he appears to have had a decisive influence in several of the most lethal attacks. Investigators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found that al-Awlaki had been an important factor in persuading the Tsarnaev brothers of the necessity of violence—and even had provided, via his oversight of Inspire, the English-language magazine of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), instructions for making pressure-cooker bombs with explosive powder from fireworks. In January 2015, before French police fatally shot the Kouachi brothers, they had repeatedly made clear that they had attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on behalf of AQAP and “Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki,” whom one brother had visited in Yemen. Four months later, two men who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Islamic State opened fire at a provocative Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. One attacker, Elton Simpson, used al-Awlaki’s portrait as his profile picture on Twitter; the other, Nadir Soofi, had passed along al-Awlaki CDs to his mother, who later stated that the drone strike that killed the cleric was “a turning point in her son’s radicalization.” In July 2015, when Mohammod Abdulazeez fatally shot four Marines and a Navy sailor at military recruiting stations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, investigators quickly discovered that he had been watching al-Awlaki material.
There was also a link to al-Awlaki in the San Bernardino shootings. Syed Farook, who shot up a work meeting and killed 14, was a devotee of al-Awlaki. His neighbor Enrique Marquez, who was charged with complicity in the murders, told the FBI that he and Farook had spent many hours watching al-Awlaki videos and had followed the bomb-making instruction in Inspire magazine.
Anwar al-Awlaki (Inspire magazine)
Farook, like Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, clearly saw no contradiction in following al-Awlaki and admiring the Islamic State. The internal feud between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State that sometimes played out on the battlefields of Syria seems not to have carried over to the West. Instead, in these recent cases, al-Awlaki appears to have served as a sort of bridge, carrying fervent young believers from mainstream Islam to the apocalyptic violence of Raqqa. In fact, the caliphate’s canny propagandists have repeatedly borrowed al-Awlaki’s name, words, and tactics.
Embraced by the Islamic State
In December 2013, a new Islamic State video started circulating on the web. It had the group’s usual exciting, martial footage and slick production values—and English narration from Anwar al-Awlaki, whose portrait was displayed in one corner of the screen. Listening to it, one could be momentarily baffled. Some passages sounded up-to-the-minute, as if al-Awlaki had been resurrected to comment on the latest news from Syria and Iraq, praising the creation of the Islamic State and remarking on its importance.
“Now, whether the state survives to expand into the next Muslim caliphate or is destroyed by the immense conspiracy against the rise of any Islamic State, I believe this to be a monumental event,” al-Awlaki said in his usual calm, pedagogical manner. “It represents a move of the idea from the theoretical realm to the real world. The idea of establishing the Islamic rule and establishing khilafah on earth now is not anymore talk—it is action.”
It took some research to establish the source of the audio recording: al-Awlaki’s lecture “The Battle of Hearts and Minds” delivered by telephone on May 11, 2008, to a South African conference on surviving as a Muslim in the West. He had been referring to the declaration in October 2006 by the Iraqi branch of al-Qa`ida that it was henceforth to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but deft editing had made his remarks sound utterly contemporary. Al-Awlaki urged his supporters to travel to fight in Iraq, among other places, and his early support for ISI, which later morphed into the Islamic State, no doubt won him popularity among the group’s leaders.
The Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq, a more somber knockoff of Inspire, featured the portrait of “Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki” in its fourth issue and quoted him to suggest that the enmity of so many countries to the Islamic State was a sort of compliment. “If one wants to know the people of truth, then let him observe where the enemies’ arrows are aimed,” the article said, paraphrasing al-Awlaki.
A still more striking tribute was the Islamic State’s decision to name a contingent of English-speaking foreign fighters the Anwar al-Awlaki Brigade. In April, the U.S. Defense Department announced that Khalid Ostman Timayare, a Swedish citizen of Somali origin killed in a U.S. air strike in Syria, had been the “deputy emir” of the al-Awlaki Brigade, suggesting that it had a command structure and active combat role. The al-Awlaki brand seems to have been chosen to convey a certain nobility to the foreign fighters, much as the name of the much larger Abraham Lincoln Brigade did for British, American, and other volunteers in a very different cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Clearly, Islamic State propagandists, who have found no English-language spokesman with a fraction of al-Awlaki’s broad appeal to frustrated Western Muslims, decided to exploit his popularity. The group likewise lionized the late Usama bin Ladin, while directing only ridicule to his charisma-challenged successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Islamic State leaders have borrowed more than al-Awlaki’s name and materials. After joining AQAP, al-Awlaki recognized that young Westerners leaving the United States, Canada, and Britain to join the fight in Yemen were wasting the huge advantage of their citizenship. Along with his American acolyte Samir Khan, he began to urge young followers to stay at home and mount attacks there, praising the U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan as a hero for killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, and loading Inspire with practical instructions for bombing and shooting, under the rubric “Open Source Jihad.” Though Islamic State propagandists began by inviting Westerners to join them in building the caliphate, the message shifted in September of 2014 after the United States and its allies began air strikes against the Islamic State. The group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, embraced al-Awlaki’s stay-at-home message. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” al-Adnani said. Echoing other al-Awlaki statements, he added: “Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.” Three weeks before the Orlando shootings, he explicitly instructed Western supporters to stay in their home countries and launch attacks.[d]
As an established jihadist brand, al-Awlaki has drawn support far beyond his initial base in the English-speaking West. In January, authorities in Singapore arrested 27 Bangladeshi men, alleging that they were part of a “jihadist terrorist cell.” Prosecutors charged that 26 of the 27 had been members of a study group devoted to the work of al-Awlaki and other extremists. It was only the latest evidence of the cleric’s appeal to Bangladeshis. In 2011, a Bangladesh-born Briton who worked for British Airways, Rajib Karim, was convicted of conspiring with al-Awlaki, who had exchanged emails with him about how to smuggle bombs past airport security. And al-Awlaki appears to have been a key inspiration to the leaders and foot soldiers of Ansar al-Islam, a jihadist group that claims to operate as the Bangladeshi wing of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Since 2015 the group has carried out a string of attacks against secular bloggers, quoting from al-Awlaki’s online sermons on the duty of Muslims to act against anybody defaming their religion.[e]
On a single day in late May, al-Awlaki’s enduring appeal to fans of the Islamic State in the United States was on display in federal courthouses 1,200 miles apart. In New York City, prosecutors unveiled charges against a 22-year-old Bronx man, Sajmir Alimehmeti, accused of repeatedly attempting to travel to Syria to fight for the self-described caliphate. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Abdirizak Warsame, 21, who had pleaded guilty to conspiring to support Islamic State, testified in the trial of three friends accused of trying to make the same trip.
Alimehmeti is Albanian by heritage; Warsame and his friends are Somali. But both found the Islamic State and its brand of garish violence, prophetic religion, and righteous adventure to be irresistible. And there was something else these recruits had in common: a devotion to al-Awlaki.
“We watched propaganda videos online,” Warsame said in court in Minneapolis when asked to explain how he and his friends came to embrace violent jihad. “Listened to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.”
The criminal complaint against Alimehmeti said FBI agents had found six audio clips of al-Awlaki lectures on his laptop. The titles alone sounded like a short course in radicalization to violence: “Jihad = Fighting,” “Hellfire and its Life,” “On the Command of Jihad,” “Advice to the Ones who Stay Behind,” “Imam Anwar al-Awlaki on the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” and finally, “The Punishment of Those Who Don’t Participate in Jihad.”
To be sure, the notoriety of al-Awlaki almost certainly introduces some degree of selection bias into such observations. Police in Bangladesh—or Minneapolis or New York or San Bernardino—may look first for al-Awlaki’s material on the laptop of a malefactor simply because his is the name they know best. But in the world of online extremism, celebrity matters. If police look first for al-Awlaki’s influence, then that is because for years young believers curious about violent jihad have been powerfully drawn by his message.
What explains the appeal of this gangly son of a prominent Yemeni family? He spoke English and Arabic with equal fluency, bringing to Islamic teaching the authority of the Arabic original of the Qur’an and hadith and the approachability of colloquial American speech. By contrast with some jihadist preachers, he was not a screamer, adopting instead an earnest, explanatory manner, playing the popular young professor. Not a serious scholar, he was nonetheless an omnivorous consumer of Islamic history and texts and an unequalled popularizer.
He was also prolific. He appears to have lived his entire professional life before audio or video recorders. His early audio lectures on the life of the Prophet Muhammad were sold in a 53-CD box. Critically—and unlike every other prominent extremist—he enjoyed a long, successful career as a mainstream preacher and lecturer before he gradually embraced extremism and violence. And today, all of his material is jumbled together, mixed and remixed and posted online. For a new convert to Islam or a Muslim taking a new interest in the faith, al-Awlaki can provide an inspiring introduction to Islamic history, a grounding in the basics of the faith, and clerical advice on everything from marital strife to overeating. And in other, later material that is equally available, he argues that is always a mistake to trust non-Muslims, that the United States is at war with Islam, and that to be true to his faith, any Muslim has the obligation to fight the United States and the other purported enemies of Islam. A posthumous article in Inspire magazine in 2012, plausibly attributed to al-Awlaki, took the argument still further. Citing early Muslim fighters’ use of the catapult to kill enemies regardless of age or gender, the article declared: “The use of poisons or chemical and biological weapons against population centers is allowed and is strongly recommended due to its great effect on the enemy.” There are concerns in Western capitals that the Islamic State may in the future try to deploy such weapons, and if they do they will be able to justify their use by drawing on al-Awlaki’s fatwa.
In some way the most insidious material comes from al-Awlaki’s middle years, after he had abandoned his early, moderate views but not yet openly embraced violence. Consider, for instance, “The Hereafter,” his lectures on the Islamic view of the afterlife, published in a 22-CD set in 2006 when al-Awlaki was living with his parents in Sana`a. He does not explicitly call for violence, but “The Hereafter” is a decidedly fundamentalist tract, including references to Islamic prophecy that might be unnerving to non-Muslims and to any Muslim determined to live in peace with people of other faiths. In language that would be echoed by Islamic State ideologues, al-Awlaki speaks of the future apocalyptic battle between Muslims and people described in Scripture as “Romans,” which he interprets as a reference to Europeans and Americans. He says that at some future time, there will no kuffar, or non-believers. “Islam will rule the world,” al-Awlaki says. “Kuffar will be stamped out.” For non-believers, the choice will be “either Islam or death,” he declares.[f]
It is a noxious message that figured in the online education of many jihadis. “Listen to Anwar al-Awlaki’s … here after series, you will gain an unbelievable amount of knowledge,” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the Boston Marathon bombers brothers, tweeted a few weeks before the attack.[g] Syed Farook, the husband in the San Bernardino attack, was another fan of the series, according to his neighbor. For those who fall under al-Awlaki’s spell, “The Hereafter” is a crucial way-station along the path from “The Life of the Prophet” to his explicit endorsement of attacks on American civilians in a 2010 recording often labeled “The Call to Jihad.” Its prophetic quality—al-Awlaki’s citations of Scripture to foretell the future—is very much in the spirit of the Islamic State.
It is interesting to ask how al-Awlaki, had he survived, might have reacted to the announcement of the caliphate in June 2014 and the naming of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. His loyalty to al-Qa`ida was well-established. He was working in Yemen under the leadership of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former personal secretary to bin Ladin. Yet al-Awlaki’s devotion to original texts, his excitement about the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq, and his regular citations of ancient prophecy all would have drawn him to the bold leaders of Raqqa. The same qualities have preserved, even enlarged, his influence in the age of the Islamic State.
Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times. His book on the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone, received the Lionel Gelber Prize for best book on foreign affairs of 2015. Follow @ScottShaneNYT
[a] The suicide bomber, Moner Abu Salha, had followed al-Awlaki’s advice to young Western Muslims to choose between hijrah, or immigration to the Muslim world, or jihad at home. See Robert Windrem, “American Suicide Bomber Says He Was Watched by FBI, Inspired by Awlaki,” NBC News, August 27, 2014.
[b] There has been no complete study of terrorism cases for al-Awlaki’s influence. A 2015 review by Fordham University Law School’s Center on National Security found explicit mentions of al-Awlaki in 65 of 287 cases of jihadist terrorism in the United States since 2007, or 23 percent (fact sheet, “By the numbers: The Lasting Influence of Anwar al-Awlaki,” July 2015). But as the center’s director, Karen J. Greenberg, noted in an email exchange with the author, the actual percentage is probably much higher.
[c] This is based on the author’s own observation. Early in 2016, it became difficult for the first time to find on YouTube al-Awlaki’s most explicit call for attacks, his “Call to Jihad,” recorded in March 2010. This followed a new call from the Counter Extremism Project and other advocates to take down al-Awlaki’s recordings. See Scott Shane, “Internet Firms Urged to Limit Work of Anwar al-Awlaki,” New York Times, December 18, 2015.
[d] In the May 21 audiotape al-Adnani stated: “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us, and more effective and more damaging to them. And if one of you wishes and tries hard to reach the Islamic State, then one of us wishes to be in your place to hurt the Crusaders day and night without sleeping, and terrorize them so that the neighbor fears his neighbor.” See Paul Cruickshank, “Orlando shooting follows ISIS call for U.S. Ramadan attacks,” CNN, June 13, 2016. His language was strikingly similar to language al-Awlaki’s young assistant Samir Khan used in 2011: “I strongly recommend all the brothers and sisters coming from the West to consider attacking America in its own backyard. The effect is much greater, it always embarrasses the enemy, and these type of individual decision-making attacks are nearly impossible for them to contain.” See Samir Khan, “Expectations Full,” Al-Malahem Media, spring 2012.
[e] For example, in claiming credit for the murder of the blogger Nazimuddin Samad in April 2016, AQIS Bangladesh stated “We remind you the words of Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki (may Allah accept his martyrdom): ‘If it is part of your freedom of speech to defame Muhammad [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him], then it is part of our religion to fight you.’” See “Bangladesh Division of AQIS Claims Murder of Blogger Nazimuddin Samad,” Flashpoint Intelligence, April 8, 2016.
[f] Awlaki’s entire series of lectures on “The Hereafter” is available on the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/nooor90.
[g] The tweet from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, using the screen name Ghuraba (“stranger” or “foreigner”) and the Twitter handle @Al_firdausiA, is available as of June 2016 at https://twitter.com/Al_firdausiA/status/311005838959595520.
 Mohammed A. Malik, “I reported Omar Mateen to the FBI,” Washington Post, June 20, 2016.
 “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” The White House, May 23, 2013.
 USA vs. Pham, 12-cr-00423, Southern District of New York.
 Author interview, Seamus Hughes, extremism expert, May 2016.
 Scott Shane, “A Homemade Style of Terror: Jihadists Push New Tactics,” New York Times, May 5, 2013.
 “Charlie Hebdo shooter says financed by Qaeda preacher in Yemen,” Reuters, January 9. 2015.
 Manny Fernandez, Richard Perez-Pena, and Fernanda Santos, “Gunman in Texas Shooting Was F.B.I. Suspect in Jihad Inquiry,” New York Times, May 4, 2015; Dan Frosch and Ana Compoy, “Mother of Texas Gunman Sought to Keep Son from Extremism,” Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2015.
 Manny Fernandez, Alan Blinder, Eric Schmitt, and Richard Perez-Pena, “In Chattanooga, a Young Man in a Downward Spiral,” New York Times, July 20, 2015.
 USA vs Enrique Marquez, Jr., 15-cr-00093, Central District of California, Affidavit of FBI Special Agent Joel T. Anderson.
 “From the Words of Scholars about the Project of the Islamic State,” posted on YouTube and other sites on December 10, 2013. For a transcript, see “ISIL Video Features Posthumous Clip of Awlaki Promoting Islamic State,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 10, 2013.
 Transcript of “The Battle of Hearts and Minds” is available at https://archive.org/details/BattleOfTheHeartsAndMinds.
 Anwar al-Awlaki, “Call to Jihad,” recorded in March 2010.
 “Reflections on the Final Crusade,” Dabiq issue 4, October 2014, p. 43.
 Bill Roggio, “US military kills 2 Swedish Islamic State fighters in Iraq,” Long War Journal, April 8, 2016.
 David Kirkpatrick, “Attacks in West Raise New Fears Over ISIS’ Influence,” New York Times, October 24, 2014.
 Lee Min Kok, “27 radicalised Bangladeshis arrested in Singapore under Internal Security Act: MHA,” Straits Times, January 20, 2016.
 Steve Swann, “Rajib Karim: The terrorist inside British Airways,” BBC, February 28, 2011.
 “Ansarullah Bangla Team banned,” Dhaka Tribune, May 25, 2015; Animesh Roul, “How Bangladesh became fertile ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 9:5 (2016).
 USA vs. Alimehtmeti, 16-mj-03322, Southern District of New York.
 USA vs. Warsame, 16-cr-00037, District of Minnesota.
 Mukhtar Ibrahim, Minnesota Public Radio, Twitter feed on May 24, 2016, https://twitter.com/mukhtaryare/status/735210945866240000.
 USA vs. Alimehtmeti, Complaint, p. 6.
 Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki, “Targeting the Populations of Countries that are at War with the Muslims,” Inspire issue 8, 2012, p. 46.
 F. Brinley Bruton, “Paris Attack: PM Valls Cites Risk of Biological, Chemical Attack,” NBC News, November 19, 2015.
 USA vs Enrique Marquez Jr., Anderson affidavit.