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Profile: The terrorist's teacher

Anwar al-Awlaki, mentor to the failed Christmas Day airline bomber, has been linked to some of the most infamous terrorist attacks on American soil.

Clerics chat during a meeting at a mosque in Sanaa, Jan. 14, 2010. A group of Yemen clerics on Thursday signed a statement saying jihad was permitted in case of any foreign military intervention in the conflict-ridden country. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

SANAA, Yemen — Anwar al-Awlaki speaks more like a professor than a preacher or a general leading his troops to battle. The highly educated, American-born Yemeni cleric’s arguments are researched and detailed, his English impeccable, and his words are plain. His lectures resonate deeply among young people, angered by what they see as Western aggression against Islam.

“Palestinian children, charging at the soldiers full speed, armed with nothing but rocks and wearing nothing but trousers and T-shirts are cowards? I fail to understand that,” he says in a 2008 audio lecture called “The Battle of Hearts and Minds.”

Awlaki preaches violent uprising against the West and has been linked to some of the most infamous terrorist attacks on American soil: Sept. 11, Fort Hood and, more recently, the failed airline bombing plot on Christmas Day. The White House says his work to spread “hate and perversion” is of “great concern.”

White House concerns are well founded. Among jihadists, Awlaki is the Islamist cleric equivalent of a pop star, especially in English-speaking countries.

“[He] has the ability to inspire those around him to carry out acts of terror. He is exceptionally prolific,” said Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert who heads the Investigative Project on Terrorism, in an email. “Probably the most prolific tele-evangelist Islamist cleric in the world today, surpassing even Osama bin Laden.”

Awlaki’s fame, however, does not reach to his home country. Many Yemenis, including government officials, say the first time they heard the name was on American television news in early November, after Nidal Hasan was accused of killing 13 people in shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas. Awlaki served as a spiritual guide for Hasan, and publicly hailed the attack. On his blog, al-Alwaki wrote, “Nidal Hasan is a hero.”

But Alwaki’s involvement in such matters is practically unknown in Yemen, according to Ahmed al-Aswadi, the head of Islamic Center in Sanaa. If Yemen continues to make headlines in the West, he added, Awlaki’s influence will grow with his notoriety. “America has made a new leader,” he said.

Many locals in Sanaa, however, consider Awlaki’s name taboo. It is well believed that the U.S. and Yemeni governments want the preacher dead, and many old colleagues and friends say they don’t want to talk about him. "Even if I knew something, I would not tell you," one imam said at a mosque in the area where Awlaki preached. 

Friends of Awlaki in Sanaa say his support for the Fort Hood shooter was justified because the attack was against soldiers, who were training to kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist with sources in Al Qaeda, rebuked the notion that his friend would have told Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas bomber, to kill civilians.