Profile: The terrorist's teacher

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.

“Sheik al-Awlaki has nothing to do with Al Qaeda,” said Shaea. Like others who know Awlaki, Shaea described him as a gentleman and a scholar.

“He is quiet, serious, kind, humble, and will help anyone, even strangers, as long as they come to learn more about Islam,” he said. “People he barely knows feel close to him.”

Shaea also said Awlaki is alive and well, despite a flurry of rumors that the preacher had been killed by air strikes on Christmas Eve. Awlaki is influential among his Shebwa tribe. And if the government tries to kill him, the tribe will fight back, Shaea said.

But many locals, like Mohammad al-Sayari, a Yemeni journalist who grew up near Awlaki’s desolate, gray ancestral village, said people in the area don’t follow the preacher’s work. “He has no influence in Yemen,”Sayari said.

Born in New Mexico in 1971, Awlaki is the son of a wealthy businessman and scholar, Nasir al-Awlaki, and a relative of the current prime minister. The senior Awlaki, who declined an interview request, is a former minister of agriculture, and an acclaimed scholar at Sanaa University.

When Awlaki was 7, his family moved from the U.S., where his father studied agricultural economics, back to Yemen. At the time, Awlaki could not speak Arabic, according to an Arabic-language website, written by someone who claims to be Awlaki’s close friend. But he was a quick learner — he moved up an entire grade in five months, the website said.

In 1991, Awlaki returned to the U.S. and attended Colorado University. After college, he moved to San Diego for graduate school. As an imam in California, he preached to Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Midhar — young jihadists who would later live in infamy as two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. They later attended Awlaki’s lectures in Northern Virginia at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center.

Awlaki also served as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare in San Diego, which was later found to be “a front organization to funnel money to terrorists,” according to a 2009 report by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorist-monitoring group.

The CSSW was founded by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni sheik whom the U.S. government and the United Nations have dubbed a “specially designated global terrorist.”

Zindani, who did not respond to an interview request, has repeatedly denied having any personal relationship with Awlaki. It is widely believed that Awlaki either taught or studied at Imam University, the school Zindani heads.

On Jan. 14, after a conference in which Zindani called for a global jihad if foreign countries send troops to Yemen to fight Al Qaeda, one of Zindani’s students told GlobalPost that Awlaki attended lectures at Imam University, but not consistently.

“He was not a regular student,” Sheik Abdulsallam Al-Ansi said.

Although it is not entirely clear where Awlaki developed his jihadist ideology, it is clear that he knows the best way to spread it: His inspirational audio lectures have gone viral on YouTube and Google Video. He is quickly becoming the known as “the bin Laden of the internet.”

In a lecture called, “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” Awlaki advised male followers to get military training, and their wives to accept that husbands might die in suicide missions or be taken prisoner. Like most of his lectures, it is surprisingly eloquent, charismatic and potentially convincing to disenfranchised young people.

“Our culture of martyrdom needs to be revived,” he said, “because the enemy of Allah fears nothing more than our love of death.”