Two U.S. citizens who became Islamist jihadists were killed in an American drone attack in Yemen early this morning, officials in America and Yemen report. The deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki, an Amercan-born radical cleric linked to at least 15 terrorist plots, and Samir Khan, editor of Inspire, a sophisticated English-language online magazine devoted to inspiring homegrown jihadists, are being touted as a major blow to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda’s virulent Yemen-based arm. Both men were profiled in the current issue of the SPLC Intelligence Report, which featured a cover story about homegrown jihadists.
Al-Awlaki, whom the New York Times describes as “perhaps the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad against the U.S,” was associated with a number of known terrorists. He is believed to have inspired the Pakistani-American who in May 2010 attempted to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square, and he exchanged E-mails with alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Two of the 9/11 hijackers met with him at his mosques in California and Virginia, according to The 9/11 Commission Report. His death, a senior military official told The New York Times this morning, is a “critically important” blow to Al Qaeda, as it “sets sense of doom for the rest of them.”
Though the 9/11 Commission entertained suspicions that he had been a secret Al Qaeda agent in the U.S. long before the attacks, Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents in 1971, claimed to have been a nonviolent moderate until the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. He held positions at mosques in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before moving overseas – first to Britain in 2002, then to Yemen in 2004, where with prodding from the U.S. he was incarcerated for 18 months. It was after that period that he publicly identified with Al Qaeda and became its most inspirational figure in the recruitment of disaffected westerners.
He used the Internet to reach large global audiences with radical sermons that mix religious stories and incitement to violence, and promoted the conspiracy theory – shared by white anti-Semites like Christopher Bollyn of the conspiracist American Free Press and ex-Klansman David Duke – that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks.
In April 2010, al-Awlaki became the first American to be placed on the CIA’s controversial “kill or capture” list. His father challenged the order in court, but a federal judge dismissed the suit, ruling the father had no standing – though the judge wrote that the suit raised “stark and perplexing questions” about using executive power to target U.S citizens. The Treasury Department froze his U.S. assets and prohibited transactions with him.
The plan to target al-Awlaki met with opposition from an unusual convergence of civil liberties and national security perspectives. Op-eds in Newsweek, The New York Times, and the conservative National Review questioned the wisdom of the decision. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer, today encapsulated both concerns, arguing that U.S. has riskily turned al-Awlaki into a “martyr,” and that the cleric’s “murder” violated the Fifth Amendment (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law,”) and possibly the First Amendment as well. The American Civil Liberties Union today opined that the counterterrorism program under which al-Awlaki was killed “violates both U.S. and international law.”
But U.S. authorities considered him an especially dangerous terrorist recruiter because of his excellent English language skills, his familiarity with U.S. culture, and his persuasive advocacy. In April, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, Mark F. Giuliano, said that figures like Khan and Al-Awlaki represent a more serious threat than the older Al Qaeda organization, because they “understand our culture, our limitations, our security protocols, and our vulnerabilities.” Their ability to exploit social media also makes them particularly dangerous. “They realize the importance and value of reaching English speaking audiences and are using the group’s marketing skills to inspire individual attacks within the homeland,” Giuliano said. “In many cases they are attempting to provide them with the knowledge to do so, without having to travel or train abroad.”
Samir Khan, the other U.S. citizen to die in the drone attack, began promoting violent jihad in 2005 while still a teen living with his parents in Charlotte, N.C. His first blog, “InshallahShaheed,” offered translations of anti-U.S. screeds and links to secret websites where readers could obtain what The New York Times called “the latest blood-drenched insurgent videos from Iraq.” He moved to Yemen in 2009, and launched Inspire, which has featured instructional articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and another describing how to use a pickup truck to “mow down the enemies of Allah.” It also has carried articles purportedly written by Osama bin Laden and al-Awlaki.
It is not known if Khan was targeted for assassination, but the Associated Press reported today, “U.S. intelligence officials have said that Khan … was not directly responsible for targeting Americans.”