Anwar al-Awlaki’s Life after Death: ISIS, al-Qaida, and a Shared Legacy

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There is a saying attributed to Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, regarding the difference between those who have lived and those who have died. It is a saying oft-used by Islamic lecturers when referring to past ideologues and figures in Islamic history, including by al-Awlaki himself. 

“Whoever wants to follow a path, let him follow the path of one who has died, for the living are not safe from fitnah (temptation).”

This quote applies to al-Awlaki in more ways than one. Many Muslims felt betrayed when al-Awlaki threw off his more outwardly mainstream beliefs in favor of following the ideologies of rabid militancy and al-Qaida. On the opposite end of that spectrum, al-Awlaki dying before the split between ISIS and al-Qaida prevented him, a man of great stature in the jihadi community, from taking a side. Because of this ambiguity, his teachings, his life, and his legacy have been shared by both, with the former organisation taking the lead in that matter.

ISIS

In his first interview since arriving in Syria and joining ISIS, German national Denis Cuspert, a formerly up-and-coming rapper known as Deso Dogg on the hip-hop scene and as Abu Talhah al-Almani to his Islamist audience, explained his reasons for emigrating. In a release distributed by the Global Islamic Media Front entitled “Cowardly Attack – Meticulous Answer”, Cuspert describes a story that a fellow German Muslim translated for him from a lecture, though he does not name who the lecturer is. The story describes a Jewish rabbi named Mukhayriq who came to the Prophet Muhammad during the Battle of Uhud, and according to some accounts, converted to Islam that day and died the very same day, fighting on behalf of Islam and becoming a martyr. This very same story appears in al-Awlaki’s lecture series “Constants on the Path of Jihad.”

An excerpt from the first depiction of Anwar al-Awlaki in ISIS-affiliated media after the initial aftermath of his death, from the first entry in the “Series of the Life From the Words of the Scholars on the Project of the Islamic State”.

Starting in December of 2013, al-I’tisam Media, one of the three then-major media functions of ISIS (now defunct), began releasing a series of videos showcasing the words of so-called “scholars” regarding their support for the Islamic State project. These figures were titans in the jihadi community: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Osama bin Laden himself. The first and sixth entries in the nine-part series, however, featured the only English-language endorsements of the project, coming from al-Awlaki. In the excerpts, included over shots of the supposedly veritable utopia of ISIS control, the American imam compares the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. While al-Awlaki was describing the organisation at a time when it was still firmly within al-Qaida’s command, albeit with its own intra-organisational disagreements, careful editing and lack of preceding context allow the message to be transported to fit the ISIS narrative of the present day, even after their supporters declared al-Qaida so far as to be the “Jews of Jihad”.1.“ISIS Ideologue Calls Al-Qaeda the ‘Jews of Jihad’ As Rivalry Continues” : Newsweek While ISIS has yet to release more video material featuring al-Awlaki’s image and spoken word, his legacy with the al-Qaida splinter organization continues to this day nonetheless.

Beginning in the fourth issue of Dabiq magazine released in October 2014, ISIS utilized al-Awlaki as a familiar figure for English-speaking Muslims. While the quote, “Follow the arrows of the enemy and you will find the truth,” is a quote by the famed medieval theologian Imam Shafi’i, Dabiq instead attributes the quote to al-Awlaki, as an appeal to authority. While the works of Shafi’i would likely be known at face value to a Muslim inclined to ISIS, they would also likely be impenetrable and unfamiliar, rather than the works of al-Awlaki, which are manufactured for simplicity and feel that much more intimate and close as a result.

In December 2014, signs of al-Awlaki’s influence on the character of English-speaking ISIS fighters could also be seen. In one example, Canadian foreign fighter John Maguire styled his persona around the leader that inspired him when he first converted to Islam in 2010.2.“From JMag to Jihad John: the radicalization of John Maguire” : Ottawa Citizen This adoption ranged from his taken nom de guerre of “Abu Anwar”, and even to his cadence and tone of speech, right down to mimicking the introductory words that al-Awlaki would say before his lectures, which ended in “Peace be upon those who follow the guidance.”

In January 2015, it was revealed by neutral informer organization “Raqqah Is Being Slaughtered Silently” that ISIS had formed the “Anwar al-Awlaki Brigade”, a military unit made up of English-speaking foreign fighters, with orders to commit attacks in countries who are a part of Operation Inherent Resolve and destabilize them.3.“Jihadist John expands to Europe” : Raqqa-SL While the leader of the brigade is not known, Khaled Uthman at-Timawi, a Somali Swedish-born chemical engineering student, was the deputy at one point, and would later be killed in a Coalition airstrike in April 2016.4.“Isis: What we know about Ayman Al-Awlaki Brigade, as Pentagon confirms death of group’s ‘deputy-emir'” : IB Times The brigade is made up of Americans, Britons, Australians, as well as English-speakers from non-native English-speaking countries, like Bosnia and Sweden.

Lone-Wolf Attacks

In May 2015, the first ISIS-inspired attack with al-Awlaki connections occurred in Garland, Texas. Elton Simpson, along with Nadir Soofi, opened fire on police officers guarding a building holding a cartoon drawing contest of the Prophet Muhammad. Simpson, who wrote under the twitter handle “Shariah is Light”, tweeted out the intention to commit the attack only minutes before it occurred.5.“Twitter account that posted about Texas attack minutes before is closed down” : The Guardian His profile and cover photos were of al-Awlaki.

Elton Simpson’s final tweet, writing his pledge of allegiance to ISIS, before he would go on to attack the cartoon contest in Garland, Texas.

In December of that same year, the second ISIS-inspired attack with al-Awlaki connections occurred, this time in San Bernardino. Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators, helped in the conversion and eventual radicalization of his neighbor, Enrique Marquez, who would assist in the shooting. They would often discuss al-Awlaki, his teachings, and his ideology, and would oftentimes spend time together watching his videos.6.“Al-Qaeda figure seen as key inspiration for San Bernardino attacker” : The Washington Post They would also utilize issues of Inspire magazine to learn how to produce bombs.

In July of the next year, Omar Mateen attacked an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in what was then the deadliest shooting in American history. While ISIS did not utilize Mateen’s attack in their propaganda as much as they did others, and his reasons for committing the attack would eventually come to light to have been increasingly convoluted and contradictory, his radicalization came in the form of watching al-Awlaki’s lectures. Two years before the attack, a man who had attended the same mosque as Mateen called the FBI, informing them that he had been watching many videos that included the American cleric, finding them “powerful” to the ear.7.“Friend Who Told FBI About Orlando Shooter Omar Mateen Saw a ‘Red Flag'” : NBC

An excerpt from an issue of ISIS’ English-language magazine, Rumiyah, which praised the Ohio State attacker as a “soldier of the Islamic State.”

Several months later came the first ISIS-inspired incident on American soil where al-Awlaki’s name was directly invoked by the attacker in his reasoning. Abdur-Razzaq Ali Artan, in a Facebook post, made just before he ran down several students at Ohio State with a car before stepping out and stabbing several others, warned against fellow American Muslims following so-called “celebrity scholars” like “Yasir Qadhi, Omar Suleiman, Nouman Ali Khan,” among others. Instead, Artan recommended they listen to the “hero Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.” Rumiyah, the successor to Dabiq magazine, praised his actions and his words.

Inspiration to Hijrah

The concept of Hijrah, or migration to Muslim lands for God’s sake alone, was a commonplace subject of al-Awlaki’s many lectures. In his 53-part series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, he told cautionary tales of Muslims in Mecca who stayed behind after the first Hijrah to Medina, and would later be killed by the Muslim army. He told audiences that Hijrah was never to end until the Day of Judgement. It would be difficult, yes, and one could lose much in the journey: wealth, friends, or even family, but it was incumbent upon all Muslims who could not practice their religion freely.

In April 2016, Dabiq magazine released a profile of Abu Jandal al-Bangali, a foreign fighter from Bangladesh who died defending against the YPG during the Tal Abyad offensive the year before. While he mentioned medieval and modern Islamic theologians as inspiration, such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, al-Bangali remarked that the lectures of al-Awlaki were those that initially cemented him after hearing the “call of Islam.”

The next issue of Dabiq that came out in the following months contained more stories of ISIS militants who were placed on their path to eventually joining the group in Syria by the words of al-Awlaki. Abu Sa’d al-Trinidadi, from the small Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, remarked to an interviewer that “the da’wah to jihad took hold of me through the lectures of Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki.” In particular, al-Trinidadi names al-Awlaki’s lecture series Constants on the Path of Jihad and the Story of Ibn al-Akwa as the ones that inspired him the most.

In the same magazine issue, the story of two Canadian brothers, sons of Guyanese and Jamaican parents, is told through their collective love of al-Awlaki’s works. Abu Ibrahim al-Kanadi is narrated as having stumbled upon his brother, Abu Abdillah, watching an al-Awlaki lecture and being concerned, before being convinced to convert to Islam and then eventually watch al-Awlaki’s lectures together. 

al-Qaida

Compared to the methods that ISIS used to honor the legacy of al-Awlaki, al-Qaida’s efforts to sustain his memory were muted by comparison. While the 11th issue of Inspire Magazine featured extensive references to al-Awlaki and the Boston bombing perpetrators he inspired, and the 12th and 13th issues featured a long, unreleased question & answer session with him, the next several issues turned down the dial significantly, alongside other references to him in the rest of al-Qaida’s affiliated media centers. The last media release from any al-Qaida affiliate wholly dedicated to al-Awlaki came in the form of an excerpt from a lecture given to AQAP militants regarding the culture of martyrdom, which was released through al-Malahim Media in June 2015.

The month after the video was released, the last al-Awlaki connected shooting also disconnected from ISIS occurred in Chattanooga, when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez committed a drive-by shooting against a United States Navy recruiting center. While Abdulazeez had not openly declared allegiance to al-Qaida, American intelligence services noted the similarity in tactics and rhetoric, as well as friends having reported the shooter considered ISIS to be “completely against Islam,” among other critical statements.8.Chattanooga Shooter Abdulazeez Was ‘Against Terrorism’: Family Lawyer Inspire also praised his deeds, with al-Awlaki’s words in support of like-minded actions being included in the “Words of Wisdom” section.

After a year-long relative radial silence on the mention of al-Awlaki from the organization he helped lead, ar-Risalah magazine, a publication created by al-Qaida-affiliated militants in Syria for foreign recruitment, took cues from Dabiq and in their third issue told stories of foreign fighters who immigrated on the heels of inspiration from al-Awlaki. Alongside a brief story of an unnamed fighter who used to be in prison with a fellow Muslim who smuggled in CDs of al-Awlaki’s lectures, ar-Risalah conducted an interview with Abu Bushra al-Britani, a British foreign fighter with al-Shabab in Somalia. al-Britani mentions that after 9/11, his first foray into radical militancy came by attending study circles with close friends, where they listened to the lectures of al-Awlaki, describing him in the same words of Mateen as “very powerful.”

An interview with a British foreign fighter in Somalia for ar-Risalah Magazine, where he takes Anwar al-Awlaki’s recordings as inspiration.

Despite this sudden increase in mentions of al-Awlaki’s works, there would again be another period of relative silence on the mention of al-Awlaki, before spiking with the 17th issue of Inspire magazine released in August 2017, where his words to Muslims in America that he gave just before his death were restated to encourage al-Qaida-sympathetic Muslims in that country to attack their own infrastructure.

Since then, there has not been any mention of al-Awlaki from the central apparatus. In April 2018, al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, began releasing a video series entitled “Whoever Wants to Follow An Example, Let Him Follow the Example of Those Who Have Passed”, with al-Awlaki’s image in the beginning intro. Going farther from central command, as of the time of this writing the most recent mention of his name from any organization affiliated with al-Qaida came from the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, where an excerpt from the previously-mentioned “Life of the Prophet Muhammad” series, discussing Meccan Muslims who stayed behind and paid a terrible price, is invoked to encourage potential foreign fighters to come to Syria, even as the war begins to wind to a close.

The legacy of Anwar al-Awlaki is one that is emblematic of the contradictions inherent to the Islamic State’s propaganda model. al-Awlaki, despite being an insider to al-Qaida’s organization, crucial to its recruitment efforts abroad, and ultimately loyal to a fault to Osama bin Laden and his successor, has been primarily propped up and paraded by a splinter group that if they were alive today, would likely call call them the lowest of the lowest names. It is an ideology that seeks to carve some names into stone and curse ones of others on a dime, even when their trajectories in life would have likely placed them in an entirely different camp. Despite all of this, al-Awlaki’s names, words, and deeds live on, and will continue to live on so long as these two organizations live on as well, propagating and disseminating their words despite such different beliefs as to the proper outcome.

Séamus Malekafzali
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Writer. Interested in media analysis and nationalist movements.

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