World·In Depth

The recruiter: Anwar al-Awlaki, portrait of an American jihadist

He was one of al-Qaeda's most prominent recruiters. But the death of Anwar al-Awlaki leaves unanswered the many questions about a man that American authorities once viewed as a possible go-between in the struggle with Muslim fundamentalists.

It’s never been a secret that Washington wanted Anwar al-Awlaki dead.

The American-born cleric, once a prominent imam at mosques in San Diego and Virginia, openly declared war against the U.S., urging his followers last year to "rise up and kill Americans without the need for a legal Islamic opinion."

Indeed, just four days after a U.S. special forces team killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, a U.S. drone tried to kill al-Awlaki in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa. He survived the attack and soon his name was being bandied about on jihadist forums as a possible successor to bin Laden.

Anwar al-Awlaki in 2001, the subject of a CBC investigation.

His death early Friday, shot down by an American air strike in Yemen, boosted spirits in Washington at the same time as it raised al-Awlaki's status as a martyr on numerous al-Qaeda affiliated online forums.

But his death also leaves unanswered the many questions about a man that American authorities once viewed as a possible go-between in the struggle with Muslim fundamentalists, including, in particular, how early was his involvement with al-Qaeda plotters.

The recruiter

Al-Awlaki speaks fluent English and in the last few years al-Qaeda relied on him to provide the ideological framework for new recruits to join its global jihad, which he did primarily through his internet blog and lectures.

Through a series of email exchanges, U.S. investigators said, al-Awlaki allegedly counselled a U.S. army psychiatrist named Nidal Hasan, telling him it was religiously permissible to attack the enemy even if innocent people were killed in the process.

Hasan opened fire at the Fort Hood military base in Texas on Nov. 5, 2009, killing 13 and wounding 29. Al-Awlaki subsequently praised Hasan and called him "a hero."

A month later, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the so-called Christmas Day bomber — managed to get on a flight to Detroit while concealing an explosive device in his underwear. He was arrested after he tried but failed to detonate the bomb and al-Awlaki later told Al-Jazeera television that he had taught and corresponded with Abdulmutallab.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, the so-called Christmas Day bomber, has been indicted on six charges. (U.S. Marshal's Service/Associated Press) ((U.S. Marshal's Service/Associated Press))

In recent years, his influence would be seen on a number of plots in the U.S., Britain and Canada.

Members of the so-called Toronto 18 group were inspired by al-Awlaki’s lectures and studied his writings, an Ontario court was told.

And at least one of the six who was killed with al-Awlaki was an American-born resident of North Carolina who was said to be the design genius behind Inspire, the flashy English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to which al-Awlaki frequently contributed.

Two narratives 

There are two narratives that surround al-Awlaki’s rise through the ranks of global jihad.

His own version is that he was obliged, according to the tenets of his faith, to join al-Qaeda after the U.S. attacked the Muslim nations of Iraq and Afghanistan and intervened in Pakistan and Yemen. 

But investigators working with the Sept. 11 commission suggest a very different story. They say that al-Awlaki was a secret al-Qaeda operative long before the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, they suggest that it was only after he moved to Yemen in 2004 that he stopped concealing his true views.

Spiritual adviser

What the Pentagon didn't know when it promoted al-Awlaki as a moderate imam in the weeks after 9/11, inviting him for lunch as part of an outreach program to American Muslims, was that he was the "spiritual adviser" to three of the Sept. 11 hijackers with whom he had many "closed-door meetings."

9/11 investigators believe hijackers Hani Hanjour, Khalid Al Midhar and Nawaf al Hazmi chose San Diego in 1999, when they enrolled in flying lessons, because al-Awlaki's Muslim community provided an excellent cover.

It was certainly a supportive congregation. I spent well over a week in San Diego in 2004, speaking to Muslims at the Rabat mosque where al-Awlaki served as the imam.

Most of the people I spoke with saw al-Awlaki as a learned scholar, a man of deep spirituality, even though he had received no formal training as an imam.

He had a B.Sc. in civil engineering and a Master’s in education leadership. In 2001 he moved to Virginia to enroll in a Ph.D. program in human resource development at George Washington University. 

Midhar and Hazmi followed him and frequented the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., where al-Awlaki was appointed imam.

Prostitutes and other indulgences

Al-Awlaki’s ability to speak the Arabic language and to quote the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, coupled with his charismatic style of delivery, made him a darling in his own community and a much sought after speaker at Islamic conferences in North America and Europe.

In the late 1990s, his lectures on DVDs, CDs and cassettes were selling like hot cakes at Islamic bookstores everywhere. 

He spoke often about the life of the Prophet and his companions, as well as about marriage, booze, sex and obesity in the context of an over-indulgence of food and leisure.

Even today, his lectures remain bestsellers and Islamic bookstores in Canada continue to stock them.

In the weeks following the 9/11 attack, FBI agents questioned al-Awlaki three times, but he denied knowing anything about the plot.

Awlaki in November 2010, the image taken from a video and released by the SITE intelligence group, which monitors jihadist intentions. (SITE Intelligence Group/ Associated Press)

Perhaps investigators didn’t think an imam who had been charged twice for indulging in prostitution in San Diego, and who had been sentenced to community service and forced to take AIDS awareness courses as a result, could be a committed jihadist.

The FBI had tracked al-Awlaki in the Washington area, where he entertained prostitutes, and they considered arresting him again, but decided against it. By that point, al-Awlaki must have been aware the police were keeping an eye on him.

In November 2001, CBC News recorded a Friday sermon at his Falls Church mosque where he complained of police harassment of Muslims in America and told his congregation that "living in America is like living in a police state."

When I asked his San Diego admirers about the prostitution charges, they laughed and accused me of being naïve to believe "any of that nonsense."

"Don’t you know brother, when the enemies wish to destroy a person, their first step is to discredit him?" was their response.

Unfortunately, many in the Muslim community will continue to believe that al-Awlaki was too devout to be caught up in the web of violent extremism.

They argue that after his arrest in August 2006 in Yemen, on the grounds that he was plotting to kidnap the U.S. military attaché, he was released after being detained for 18 months and repeatedly interrogated by the FBI because there was no evidence to keep holding him.

Meanwhile, the men and women he inspired will no doubt continue to eulogize him on jihadist forums in the days to come. They are already spinning his execution as a divine answer to al-Awlaki's own prayers for martyrdom.