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How The ‘Father Of American Jihad’ Swayed The Orlando Shooter

Followers of the late Anwar al-Awlaki continue to sow a bloody trail of terror across the United States

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Anwar Al-Awlaki — (Getty Images)
Jun 20, 2016 at 12:36 PM ET

Of all the threads tying the case of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen to the larger narrative of the United States’ war against Islamist terrorists, one stands out: Mateen was reportedly radicalized on the internet in part by watching the videos of the U.S.-born imam Anwar al-Awlaki, the father of American jihad. Awlaki was a master orator and propagandist who launched the online, English-language magazine Inspire, which exhorts would-be jihadists with articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Awlaki was determined to make jihad, or Islamic holy war, as “American as apple pie, and as British as afternoon tea.” His lessons in recruitment have been closely studied and emulated by the Islamic State.

The firebrand cleric was killed by CIA drones in Yemen on September 20, 2011, making Awlaki the first American to find himself in the crosshairs of the U.S. government’s targeted killing program. The fact that he is still recruiting violent extremists from the grave speaks to the central role that Awlaki still plays in the radicalization of Western jihadists.

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Awlaki’s disciples have carved a long and bloody trail of terror across the United States. According to the 9/11 Commission, Awlaki was the “spiritual adviser” for 9/11 hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi, who helped crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing more than 170 people. He was in direct email communication with Army Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter who killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others. His sermons inspired Carlos Bledsoe, an American who killed one U.S. soldier and wounded another at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square.

Awlaki and his terrorist franchise al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were directly behind the plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber” who nearly brought down an airliner over Detroit; and Awlaki reportedly masterminded the unsuccessful AQAP plot to blow up cargo planes bound for the United States. His YouTube sermons were found on the computers of Boston marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who learned how to make their bombs from Inspire. According to a report last year by the 9/11 Review Commission, Awlaki and Inspire helped motivate “at least 52 persons to participate in terrorist activities who were later indicted on terrorism-related charges.” Now Omar Mateen and the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history can be added to that list of infamy.

The continued centrality of Anwar al-Awlaki in the pantheon of Western jihadists reveals the powerful role that extreme religious figures play in the process of radicalization, and the degree to which the internet now carries those messages into homes across the country. His case also points to the difficulty U.S. officials confront in trying to stem that poisonous tide.

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Certainly his example has not been lost on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proclaimed his “caliphate” from Mosul in 2014 wrapped not in the garb of an Islamist warrior with an AK-47 like Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but rather in the robes of an Islamic religious figure like Awlaki. The Islamic State’s glossy online magazine Dabiq attempts to repeat the popularity and outreach of Inspire. ISIS’ slick if gruesome videos, and constant English-language jihadist tweets, all suggest that its leaders were listening when Awlaki advised that “the Internet has become a great medium for spreading the call of Jihad, and following the news of the mujahideen.”

For many years Awlaki also benefitted from the fact that radicalism of thought is not a crime, nor is inspiring others to choose the path of jihad. The FBI actually interviewed Awlaki multiple times about his ties to the 9/11 hijackers in the months after the attacks. They were suspicious of his shadowy connections to two of the hijackers who prayed at Awlaki’s mosque in San Diego, California. Both had been seen in long conversations with the imam. The hijackers followed him to a new mosque in northern Virginia, which they attended before seizing the aircraft that they flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. FBI investigators suspected Awlaki played a role in the 9/11 plot, but they lacked the evidence to prove it.

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In 2008 an FBI agent again interviewed Awlaki in a Yemeni jail. He had been arrested for suspected links to a plot to kidnap a U.S. military officer in Yemen, but the FBI still lacked evidence that would stand up in court. Suspicions of radicalization and association with suspected terrorists were not enough to bring charges of criminality. Awlaki walked free after his interview with the FBI, as would later be the case with Carlos Bledsoe, the Tsarnaev brothers, and Omar Mateen. All of them would go on to commit acts of terrorism that claimed multiple American lives.

“In the world of jihad Awlaki is the gift that keeps on giving, because he has been able to recruit more Westerners to the cause than Osama bin Laden ever did,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and author, and director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. “He was telegenic, spoke in an American vernacular, was a respected religious scholar, and couched his extremism in an almost avuncular demeanor that didn’t seem very threatening. All of those attributes made Awlaki a very effective jihadi recruiter on the Internet, where he lives on through his videotaped sermons.”

Even in death, Hoffman notes, “Anwar al-Awlaki is a very dangerous man.”