Most Americans have never heard of Anwar al Awlaki, but the radical Muslim cleric who may have inspired a young Nigerian man to try to blow up a plane on Christmas Day has been linked to the alleged perpetrators of the deadliest terror attacks on U.S. soil this decade, from 9/11 to the massacre at Fort Hood.
Awlaki twice made headlines last week. Along with several other al Qaeda operatives, the preacher was the target of a U.S. airstrike in Yemen Dec. 24. He was mentioned in articles around the world again the following day, when one acolyte, suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate an explosive device while aboard a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Detroit on Christmas.
Awlaki apparently is still alive after the Yemen attack, and has reportedly made calls to Yemini journalists in the last few days. This would not be the first time U.S.-born imam slipped through the hands of American justice.
With much of the senior al Qaeda leadership believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, Awlaki has been able in recent years to fill a niche for those looking to hear and read extremist interpretations of Islam, said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East and terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Council.
"Some of the benefit of Awlaki was that he wasn't being chased. For a long time he was not under severe pressure, when others were," said Katzman. "He only came to prominence after the Fort Hood shootings. He was not being heavily pursued, and that afforded him a certain amount of liberty, to preach and let people contact him."
After several years of preaching an extreme version of Islam across mosques in the United States, the 36-year-old imam left the U.S. in 2002 following a decision that forced federal authorities to rescind a warrant issued for his arrest related to alleged passport fraud.
Once in Yemen, Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico, hooked up with the local branch of international terror syndicate al Qaeda, according to U.S. authorities. Despite moving to the Middle East, through his Web site and audio recordings he preached a message of violence and hate that became popular with a new generation of Muslims raised outside the Arabian Peninsula.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch with which Awlaki is affiliated, took credit Monday for Abdulmutallab's botched bombing on Christmas Day.
Awlaki has "no known direct links with al Qaeda Central, but [he has them] with al Qaeda in Yemen," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University, in an e-mail.
"[He] is seen as effective in communicating with and radicalizing Western jihadis and wannabe jihadis. … He is a very effective and charismatic communicator," Hoffman said.
Awlaki also consulted with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar, in San Francisco. Meetings, a congressional inquiry investigating the attacks said, "may not have been coincidental."