Anwar al-Awlaki was a U.S.-Yemeni dual citizen and longtime cleric, propagandist, and operative for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).“Treasury Designates Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Key Leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 16, 2010, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg779.aspx. On September 30, 2011, Awlaki was targeted and killed in Yemen in the first U.S. drone strike to deliberately target a U.S. citizen.Spencer Ackerman, “US cited controversial law in decision to kill American citizen by drone,” Guardian (London), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/23/us-justification-drone-killing-american-citizen-awlaki. While he was alive, Awlaki directed a number of terrorist plots against the United States,“Remarks by the President at the "Change of Office" Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ceremony,” The White House, September 30, 2011, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/30/remarks-president-change-office-chairman-joint-chiefs-staff-ceremony. and disseminated English- and Arabic-language videos, audio recordings, and articles online.“Cleric al-Awlaki dubbed ‘bin Laden of the Internet,’” USA Today, last updated September 30, 2011, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-08-25-1A_Awlaki25_CV_N.htm. Awlaki’s teachings—still widely available on the Internet—continue to inspire scores of terrorist attacks, frequently aimed at the United States.“Anwar al-Awlaki’s Ties to Extremists,” Counter Extremism Project, accessed September 2016, http://www.counterextremism.com/anwar-al-awlaki?utm_source=Nationbuilder&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Awlaki%20Resource. CEP continues to identify these extremists in its online resource, Anwar al-Awlaki’s Ties to Extremists.
In November 2017, in response to external pressure from governments and CEP, Google drastically reduced the amount of Awlaki’s recorded lectures from its YouTube platform.“CEP Statement on YouTube Removal of Anwar al-Awlaki Material,” Counter Extremism Project, November 14, 2017, https://www.counterextremism.com/press/cep-statement-youtube-removal-anwar-al-awlaki-material-0; Scott Shane, “In ‘Watershed Moment,’ YouTube Blocks Extremist Cleric’s Message,” New York Times, November 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/12/us/politics/youtube-terrorism-anwar-al-awlaki.html.
Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971 and moved to Yemen with his family at the age of 7. He returned to the United States in 1990 to study engineering at Colorado State University, where he served as president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and delivered sermons at the Islamic Center of the Fort Collins in Fort Collins, Colorado.Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet, “Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad,” The New York Times, May 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/world/09awlaki.html; Bruce Finley, “Muslim Cleric Targeted by U.S. Made Little Impression During Colorado Years,” The Denver Post, April 11, 2010, http://www.denverpost.com/commented/ci_14861059. According to terror analyst J.M. Berger, in 1993, Awlaki may have spent his summer training with the muhajideen in Afghanistan.J.M. Berger, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Washington, D.C., Potomac Books Inc., 2011), https://books.google.com/books?id=LomKwVXd-o8C&pg=PT184&lpg=PT184&dq=summer+1993+awlaki+%2B+afghanistan&source=bl&ots=JnXxd00Vzf&sig=PbwAmJhS1Qh-JsmKajWKZLcKf2o&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi7_ZGqtqPPAhWBKB4KHdvEB7oQ6AEIIzAC#v=onepage&q=summer%201993%20awlaki%20%2B%20afghanistan&f=false; Cynthia Ghazali, “Anwar al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda chief, killed in Yemen by U.S. airstrike: Timeline of his life,” NY Daily News, September 30, 2011, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/anwar-al-awlaki-al-qaeda-chief-killed-yemen-u-s-airstrike-timeline-life-article-1.958573.
In the mid-late 1990s, while living in California, Awlaki became more involved in his local Muslim community while privately engaging in illegal activities. Between 1996 and 2000, Awlaki served as imam at the Arribat al-Islami (Rabat) mosque in San Diego,Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet, “Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad,” The New York Times, May 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/world/09awlaki.html. but was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes.“Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki 'spent thousands on prostitutes as he traveled the U.S. spreading his message of radical Islam',” Daily Mail, July 2, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2353860/Al-Qaeda-leader-Anwar-al-Awlaki-spent-thousands-prostitutes.html;
“Anwar al-Awlaki Fast Facts,” CNN, August 23, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/world/meast/anwar-al-awlaki-fast-facts/. Awlaki is also believed to have participated in the financing of terror.J.M. Berger, “Exclusive: U.S. Gave Millions to Charity Linked to Al Qaeda, Anwar Awlaki,” INTELWIRE, April 14, 2010, http://news.intelwire.com/2010/04/us-gave-millions-to-charity-linked-to.html; Tom Hays, “FBI Eyes NYC 'Charity' in Terror Probe,” The Washington Post, February 26, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A9947-2004Feb26.html. From 1998 to 1999, Awlaki served as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, which one FBI agent later referred to as a “front organization to funnel money to terrorists.”J.M. Berger, “Exclusive: U.S. Gave Millions to Charity Linked to Al Qaeda, Anwar Awlaki,” INTELWIRE, April 14, 2010, http://news.intelwire.com/2010/04/us-gave-millions-to-charity-linked-to.html; Tom Hays, “FBI Eyes NYC 'Charity' in Terror Probe,” The Washington Post, February 26, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A9947-2004Feb26.html.
The FBI opened an investigation on Awlaki in June 1999 upon receiving a tip that he had been contacted by one of Osama bin Laden’s agents in the United States.The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, official government edition (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), p. 517, http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf; J.M. Berger, “Anwar Al-Awlaki's Links to the September 11 Hijackers,” Atlantic, September 9, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/anwar-al-awlakis-links-to-the-september-11-hijackers/244796/. However, the investigation was closed in March of 2000 due to insufficient evidence.Joseph Rhee and Mark Schone, “How Anwar Awlaki Got Away,” ABC News, November 30, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/FtHoodInvestigation/anwar-awlaki/story?id=9200720. Days before the FBI closed his file, Awlaki met and allegedly befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mindhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who reportedly attended the San Diego mosque at which Awlaki preached.The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, official government edition (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), p. 221, http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf; J.M. Berger, “Anwar Al-Awlaki's Links to the September 11 Hijackers,” Atlantic, September 9, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/anwar-al-awlakis-links-to-the-september-11-hijackers/244796/. In 2001, Awlaki settled in Falls Church, Virginia, and became imam at the Dar Al Hijrah mosque, one of the largest mosques in the United States.Cynthia Ghazali, “Anwar al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda Chief, Killed in Yemen by U.S. Airstrike: Timeline of His Life,” NY Daily News, September 30, 2011, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/anwar-al-awlaki-al-qaeda-chief-killed-yemen-u-s-airstrike-timeline-life-article-1.958573;
Associated Press, “Al-Qaida Cleric Death: Mixed Emotions at Virginia Mosque Where He Preached,” Guardian (London), September 30, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/30/anwar-awlaki-mosque-virginia-worshippers; “Inside Dar Al-Hijrah,” Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/inside-dar-al-hijrah/2011/09/02/gIQAZzju2J_gallery.html. That year, Awlaki also reportedly met 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour.J.M. Berger, “Anwar Al-Awlaki's Links to the September 11 Hijackers,” Atlantic, September 9, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/anwar-al-awlakis-links-to-the-september-11-hijackers/244796/. Although Awlaki met these three 9/11 hijackers before the attacks, Awlaki’s complicity in the attacks remains inconclusive. However, one detective told the 9/11 commission that he believed Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.”Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet, “Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad,” The New York Times, May 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/world/09awlaki.html.
Awlaki lived in the United States until 2002, when he moved to London before relocating to Yemen as late as 2004.“Anwar al-Awlaki Fast Facts,” CNN, August 23, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/world/meast/anwar-al-awlaki-fast-facts/;
Scott Shane and Souad Mekhennet, “Imam’s Path From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad,” New York Times, May 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/world/09awlaki.html. He was jailed in Yemeni prison for 18 months between mid-2006 and late 2007 on charges of kidnapping for ransom and plotting alongside al-Qaeda to kidnap a U.S. military attaché.“Treasury Designates Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Key Leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 16, 2010, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg779.aspx. Soon after his release, Awlaki traveled to his family’s ancestral home in Shabwah province, Yemen, and joined AQAP there a few months later, soon becoming a key leader in the group.Scott Shane, “The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki,” New York Times, August 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-lessons-of-anwar-al-awlaki.html?_r=0.
As a senior leader of AQAP, Awlaki helped to set the group’s strategic direction, recruit and train operatives, and direct attacks against U.S. interests.“Treasury Designates Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Key Leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 16, 2010, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg779.aspx. In the summer of 2009, Awlaki met with Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—colloquially known as the “underwear bomber”—in Yemen. Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab to film a “martyrdom video,” and instructed him to blow up a civilian airliner above the United States. On Christmas Day, 2009, Abdulmutallab carried out the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit.“United States of America. v. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab,” United States District Court Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division, September 10, 2012, 12-14, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/documents/umar-farouk-abdul-mutallab-sentence-brief.pdf;
David Ariosto and Deborah Feyerick, “Christmas Day Bomber Sentenced to Life in Prison,” CNN, February 17, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/16/justice/michigan-underwear-bomber-sentencing/.
Awlaki had documented ties to a number of other terrorists. In early 2009, Awlaki was in contact via email with Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army Major who in November 2009 killed 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military post near Killeen, Texas.“Anwar Awlaki E-Mail Exchange with Fort Hood Shooter Nidal Hasan,” INTELWIRE, July 19, 2012, http://news.intelwire.com/2012/07/the-following-e-mails-between-maj.html. Roughly a year after the attack, Awlaki referred to Hasan as a “hero.”“In quotes: Anwar al-Awlaki,” BBC News, September 30, 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-15124351. Awlaki was also involved in an October 2010 plot to blow up a U.S. cargo plane flying from Yemen to the United States.“Remarks by the President at the "Change of Office" Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ceremony,” The White House, September 30, 2011, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/30/remarks-president-change-office-chairman-joint-chiefs-staff-ceremony. The bomb, disguised as an ink cartridge, was built by AQAP’s chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri and was timed to detonate as the plane flew over the eastern seaboard of the United States. The bomb was removed by British police after a tip from Saudi intelligence.Gordon Rayner and Duncan Gardham, “Cargo plane bomb plot: ink cartridge bomb ‘timed to blow up over US,’” Telegraph (London), November 10, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/8124226/Cargo-plane-bomb-plot-ink-cartridge-bomb-timed-to-blow-up-over-US.html. In 2011, Awlaki instructed British citizen Minh Quang Pham to carry out a suicide bombing at London’s Heathrow International Airport. Pham, who trained alongside AQAP in Yemen during the first half of 2011, was arrested by British authorities in June 2012.“Documents in Al Qaeda Case,” New York Times, May 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/10/world/middleeast/document-al-qaeda-court-case.html?_r=0;
“Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces The Extradition Of Defendant From United Kingdom For Providing Material Support To, And Receiving Military Training From, Al Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula,” U.S. Department of Justice, March 3, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/manhattan-us-attorney-announces-extradition-defendant-united-kingdom-providing-material. Despite Awlaki’s principle role in AQAP, at some point in 2010, when AQAP nominated Awlaki as a possible new leader, bin Laden reportedly vetoed the appointment.Peter Bergen, “The Last Days of Osama bin Laden,” Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-last-days-of-osama-bin-laden-11627657283.
President Barack Obama authorized the killing of Awlaki in April 2010. In defense of the decision to target an American citizen, director of national intelligence Dennis C. Blair told a House hearing that “if we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”Scott Shane, “U.S. Approves Targeted Killing of American Cleric,” New York Times, April 6, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/world/middleeast/07yemen.html?_r=0. In January 2011, Awlaki was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia by a Yemeni court for his connection to the killing of a French engineer in Yemen.“Yemen Sentences Awlaki in Absentia,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/2011117133558339969.html. Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike on September 30, 2011, while traveling between Marib and Jawf provinces in Yemen.Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Robert F. Worth, “Two-Year Manhunt Led to Killing of Awlaki in Yemen,” New York Times, Septmeber 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/world/middleeast/anwar-al-awlaki-is-killed-in-yemen.html.
In the announcement of Awlaki’s death, Obama referred to the U.S.-Yemeni terrorist as AQAP’s “director of external operations.”“Remarks by the President at the "Change of Office" Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ceremony,” The White House, September 30, 2011, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/30/remarks-president-change-office-chairman-joint-chiefs-staff-ceremony. While Awlaki took a principal role in directing attacks against the United States, his vast collection of propagandizing material—widely available online—directly inspired individuals around the world to carry out attacks, especially in the West. Among Awlaki’s followers was failed bomber Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Manhattan’s Times Square in May 2010. Shahzad later told investigators that he had been inspired by Awlaki’s online sermons.Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, “Times Sq. Bomb Suspect Is Linked to Militant Cleric,” New York Times, May 6, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/07/world/middleeast/07awlaki-.html. Roshonara Choudhry, a British student who stabbed Labor MP Stephen Timms in May 2010 because he had voted in favor of invading Iraq, was also reportedly self-radicalized online by Awlaki’s sermons.Vikram Dodd and Alexandra Topping, “Roshonara Choudhry jailed for life over MP attack,” Guardian (London), November 3, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/nov/03/roshonara-choudhry-jailed-life-attack.
Even after his death, Awlaki’s ideology has motivated homegrown extremists to commit acts of terror. The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, had watched YouTube videos of Awlaki’s lectures.Scott Shane, “The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki,” New York Times, August 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-lessons-of-anwar-al-awlaki.html?_r=1;
Ann O’Neill, “The 13th Juror: The radicalization of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,” CNN, March 30, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/27/us/tsarnaev-13th-juror-jahar-radicalization/;
“United States of America v. Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev a/k/a/ ‘Jahar Tsarni,’” United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, June 27, 2013, http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-ma/legacy/2013/06/27/Indictment1.pdf. They also built the pressure cooker bombs used in the attack from instructions in AQAP’s online magazine Inspire, which was founded by Awlaki in 2010.Ian Black, “Inspire magazine: the self-help manual for al-Qaida terrorists,” Guardian (London), May 24, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/may/24/inspire-magazine-self-help-manual-al-qaida-terrorists;
Sari Horwitz, “Investigators sharpen focus on wife of dead Boston bombing suspect,” Washington Post, May 3, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/investigators-sharpen-focus-on-boston-bombing-suspects-widow/2013/05/03/a2cd9d28-b413-11e2-baf7-5bc2a9dc6f44_story.html. In addition, the Kouachi brothers who carried out the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo were both reported to have met Awlaki in Yemen while training with AQAP.“Kouachi brothers had weapons training in Yemen,” Al Jazeera America, January 11, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/11/kouachi-france.html.
Awlaki’s radicalizing influence was also apparent in the May 2015 attack on the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas,Dan Frosch and Ana Campoy, “Mother of Texas Gunman Sought to Keep Son From Extremism,” Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/mother-of-texas-gunman-sought-to-keep-son-from-extremism-1430951298. as well as the December 2015 San Bernardino shootings that killed 14. Following the San Bernardino attack, evidence emerged that one of the perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook, had listened to Awlaki’s sermons since at least 2011.“U.S. District Court for the Central District of California: U.S. v. Enrique Marquez, Jr.,” Department of Justice, December 17, 2015, 4, https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/800606/download;
Adam Nagourney, Richard Perez Pena, and Ian Lovett, “Neighbor of San Bernardino Attackers Faces Terrorism Charges,” New York Times, December 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/us/san-bernardino-enrique-marquez-charges-justice-department.html. In the wake of the June 2016 Orlando shootings, it was revealed that shooter Omar Mateen had previously listened to Awlaki’s sermons.Gabe Gutierrez and Erik Ortiz, “Friend Who Told FBI About Orlando Shooter Omar Mateen Saw a ‘Red Flag,’” NBC News, June 21, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/orlando-nightclub-massacre/friend-who-told-fbi-about-orlando-shooter-omar-mateen-saw-n596496.
The United Kingdom designated Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as an Asset Freeze Target on January 20, 2010.“CONSOLIDATED LIST OF FINANCIAL SANCTIONS TARGETS IN THE UK,” GOV.UK, last modified September 3, 2014, http://hmt-sanctions.s3.amazonaws.com/sanctionsconlist.htm.
The United Kingdom designated Anwar Nasser Abdulla al-Aulaqi as an Asset Freeze Target on July 30, 2010.“CONSOLIDATED LIST OF FINANCIAL SANCTIONS TARGETS IN THE UK,” GOV.UK, last modified September 3, 2014, http://hmt-sanctions.s3.amazonaws.com/sanctionsconlist.htm.
The United Nations listed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) under the category “Entities and other groups and undertakings associated with Al Qaida” on January 19, 2010.“Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” United Nations, last modified September 9, 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/AQList.htm.
The United Nations designated Anwar Nasser Abdulla al-Aulaqi as an individual associated with the Al-Qaeda Network on July 20, 2010.“Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” United Nations, last modified September 9, 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/AQList.htm.
Australia designated Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a terrorist organization on November 26, 2010; re-listed November 26, 2013.“Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” Australian National Security, http://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/Al-QaidaintheArabianPeninsulaAQAP.aspx.
Canada designated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a terrorist entity on December 23, 2010.“Regulations Amending the Regulations Establishing a List of Entities,” Canada Gazette, December 23, 2010, http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2010/2010-12-23-x5/html/sor-dors313-eng.html.
Israel designated Anwar Nasser Ab[d]ulla al-Aulaqi as a Declared Individual under Article 2 of the Prohibition of Financing Terrorism on January 19, 2010.“טרור כפעילי שהוכרזו והיחידים הארגונים רשימות - נספחים” Prime Minister’s Office, http://www.pmo.gov.il/Secretary/GovDecisions/2013/Documents/des124B.doc.
The U.S. Department of State designated Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act) on January 19, 2010. Freeze of assets in U.S. financial institutions; ban on admission of members to U.S.; ban on providing “material support or resources” to entity“Department of State’s Terrorist Designation of Ibrahim Assan Tali Al-Asiri,” U.S. Department of State, March 24, 2011, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/03/158911.htm.
The Department of the Treasury designated Anwar al-Awlaki as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (under Executive Order 13224) on July 6, 2010. Blocks all property in U.S. or under possession of control of U.S. persons; bans any property-related transactions by U.S. persons or within U.S., including giving or receiving contributions to the entity.“Treasury Designates Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Key Leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabia Peninsula,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 16, 2010, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg779.aspx.