(Yahoo News Graphic/AP/You Tube)
Enrique Marquez was first exposed to the ideas of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2007 by Syed Rizwan Farook, his next-door neighbor in San Bernardino, Calif. The new convert to Islam spent hours at Farook’s home listening to Awlaki’s lectures and reading Inspire magazine, the al-Qaida publication in English that Awlaki founded.
By 2011, Marquez was plotting to attack a local community college with Farook, according to the criminal complaint in the case. Earlier this month, Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, attacked Farook’s workplace, killing 14 people — using assault rifles Marquez bought for them.
Marquez and Farook are just the latest in a long line of U.S. terror plotters who were influenced by the ideas and teachings of Awlaki, an American Muslim cleric who left the U.S. in 2002 and subsequently rose to the top ranks of al-Qaida. Awlaki was killed in a CIA-led drone strike five years ago in Yemen, but his teachings continue to proliferate online. The Boston Marathon bombing, the attack on military personnel in Chattanooga, Tenn., the attempted shooting at a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, and several other plots all featured young men who watched and identified with Awlaki online, after his death. (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tweeted before the marathon attack a link to Awlaki’s lectures. “You will gain an unbelievable amount of knowledge,” he wrote.) Awlaki has also influenced attackers abroad, including at least one of the terrorists behind the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
Why have so many fallen under the sway of Awlaki? It is in part because he was a well-respected and popular scholar of Islam long before he turned radical and joined al-Qaida. He was the imam at a prominent mosque in Falls Church, Va., for years. His boxed CD lectures on the history of Islam and its prophets were a hit among devout English-speaking Muslims.
“He became popular when he was a legitimate preacher of mainstream Islam and a scholar of sorts, a popularizer,” said Scott Shane, a New York Times reporter who wrote a book about Awlaki called “Objective Troy.” “His status as a respectable voice was well-established, and then he gradually evolved into a spokesman for al-Qaida.”
Once Awlaki’s lectures turned to jihad, he kept the cool, reasonable-sounding tone he used in the past to talk about what makes a good marriage or the history of the prophets of Islam. His past lent legitimacy to his radical teachings that it was every Muslim’s duty to wage jihad. Most of Awlaki’s videos are also in English, which makes him seem more familiar to Western listeners. His charismatic Internet sermons, idiomatic English and intuitive grasp of American culture made him a uniquely seductive figure for those susceptible to radicalization.
“Not only could he speak English, but he’s American and he understands American culture,” Steve Stalinsky, the executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute think tank, said. “He was easily relatable.”
Interestingly, Awlaki’s legacy has not diminished with the rise of ISIS and the somewhat quieter profile of al-Qaida. In many U.S. ISIS cases, the dead cleric is “lurking in the background,” according to Shane. One of the Garland, Texas, attackers, Elton Simpson, was in touch with an ISIS recruiter online, but his Twitter avatar photo was of Awlaki. The other, Nadir Hamid Soofi, had given his mother a boxed set of Awlaki CDs before the attempted May 2015 attack.
Local police and FBI investigators collect evidence in Garland, Texas, on May 4, 2015, after Texas police shot dead two gunmen who opened fire outside an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. (Photo: Laura Buckman/Reuters)
It’s unclear what the government can do about the cleric’s enduring influence. The FBI declined to comment on Awlaki, saying the subject is too close to the ongoing investigation in San Bernardino. The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which seeks to counter radical Islamic messages abroad, said it doesn’t target Awlaki in particular.
“It’s fair to say that Awlaki has some residual influence, but we tend to focus on what people are talking about online now,” said Tim Andrews, the acting deputy director of CSCC. Andrews said targeting specific individuals such as Awlaki is less effective than pointing out ISIS’s battlefield losses and its treatment of women.
One potential discrediting piece of information on Awlaki is that he continually saw prostitutes while living in the U.S., even as he preached fidelity and sexual propriety. He was arrested in 1997 for soliciting an undercover officer posing as a prostitute. It doesn’t appear as if the U.S. government has tried to disseminate this fact to paint him as a hypocrite. (In fact, reporters only learned about Awlaki’s prostitution habit through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.) That’s in contrast to U.S. officials immediately making it known that pornography was found on computers in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad complex.
Awlaki is more prominent online among extremists now than bin Laden, Stalinsky said. The cleric and his lectures pop up again and again, both in the United States and abroad. Al-Qaida recently released a video featuring Awlaki’s teachings and jihadists created an account for him on Telegraph, an encrypted messaging app, Stalinsky said. ISIS also refers to Awlaki in its propaganda, incorporating his statements advocating for an Islamic state in its videos.
Killing Awlaki in the drone strike in 2011 stopped him from being an active terrorist operative. While alive, Awlaki coached attempted “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and terror plotters in London, among others. But the cleric’s biggest value to al-Qaida was always as a skilled propagandist and a pioneer of using the Internet for terror recruitment. He had his own website filled with his videos and teachings and also provided encryption codes so that people in the West could contact him anonymously.
His death means he can’t plot attacks, but his “martyr” status appears only to have spread his deadly influence further.
“His greater importance is clearly as a propagandist, a recruiter, an ideologue,” Shane said. “And that role was really enhanced by killing him.”