Crafting the Aftermath
On February 5, 2002, an American-born Islamic cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki was invited to speak at the Pentagon. Congressional staffers knew of him through his sermons at a mosque in nearby Fairfax County and through the prayers he led in the Capitol. The Secretary of the Army had wanted to invite the imam before, with the aim of having a moderate Muslim speak to officials. The topic of the luncheon that al-Awlaki spoke had the objective of “urging outreach and reconciliation toward Muslims” after 9/11.
10 years later, he would be dead, killed in a drone strike ordered by President Obama.
Anwar al-Awlaki holds a strange place in modern history, and not just for being the first American citizen killed in a targeted assassination by the U.S. government. He was unique for his standing within the Islamic community. At one point, al-Awlaki was considered the model figure for American Muslims, an orthodox individual that drew respect and attention from many on the Sunni Islamic spectrum. He was rare in a clerical scene rife with liberal figures who earned the ire of more conservative Muslims. He spoke slowly, clearly, and simply, with every word having a purpose to it. In contrast to conservative clerics of his era, known for either their shouting tirades or their casual style, al-Awlaki gave off a scholarly air. For all this, he earned the honorable title of “Shaykh” from his supporters at a far younger age than most denoted with such a name.
al-Awlaki was also lauded on the lecture circuit, selling thousands of CDs and DVDs of his works. They told stories of the lives of the Prophets and their companions, the journey to the Hereafter, and what differentiated him from the rest of the popular clerics, the methodology of jihad.
All of these factors, when combined with his own turn toward al-Qaida after a torturous prison stint in Yemen, would turn al-Awlaki into the long-standing figure that would influence so many would-be jihadis in the years to come.
The first acknowledgment of al-Awlaki’s death via drone strike was released by his organization, AQAP, 10 days after the fact. In a statement entitled, “The Blood of the Martyr is Light and Fire”, it reads:
Yes, America has killed Sheikh Anwar, may Allah have mercy on him, but they can never kill his ideology. Rather, the martyrdom of the Sheikh is a new and revived life of his ideology and style. The Sheikh has students which he taught, and students which have benefited from him in various parts of the world. They will march his march, following his tracks, continuing on the straight path, the path of the Prophet [Muhammad] ﷺ.
The remarks on al-Awlaki’s ideology would prove to be true in time. Unlike many other jihadi leaders of similar qualities, like Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and Abu Omar al-Shishani, al-Awlaki would remain a fixture in Islamist inspiration for years to come.
Through this acknowledgement of his death came an outpouring of condolences, songs, and sermons that would cement his legacy. Internet forums lauded him for being “among the very few scholars who dare to speak the Truth,” and for differentiating himself from the rest who “merely talk about Jihad,” by going out and performing it. The Islamic State of Iraq praised him for his “sincere rhetoric and clear-cut approach” and declared his voice “terrifying” to the West. Hani al-Siba’i, al-Qaida’s top scholar outside the Middle East, eulogized him in an hour and a half-long sermon. Letters from the United States, Yemen, Britain, Gaza, Uzbekistan, and more kept coming and coming. By the time of al-Awlaki’s death, his turn to al-Qaida had grown his reach far beyond the English-speaking world.
Creation of the Legacy
al-Awlaki was at the forefront of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s media offensive during his time with the group. The first issue of Inspire magazine, their English-language publication, even featured email links where prospective recruits could contact him directly for advice. While in the first several issues, al-Awlaki acted as the major scholar of the group, as an invaluable resource for answering critical questions for those inclined toward al-Qaida’s version of worldwide jihad. After his death at the hands of a drone strike, his role in Islamist propaganda shifted.
Now having been made a martyr, killed by his own government, al-Qaida could use his legacy as both a so-called scholar and a jihadi to push Muslims toward their cause. While Islamic scholars such as those in Saudi Arabia did talk of jihad, albeit with extreme caution towards the sensibilities of governments, al-Awlaki both talked of it, displayed intrinsic ability to connect medieval stories to modern-day events, and also performed it, the performance aspect being the most crucial.
Now, with al-Awlaki dead, the editors of Inspire magazine and al-Qaida at-large did not have to rely on his rulings or his sayings to push people towards jihad. Rather, they could utilize the actions he undertook in his life, coupled with his knowledge of the methodology, to inspire Muslims towards militancy.
On December 20, close to three months after al-Awlaki’s death, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s official media office, al-Malahim Media, put together a mini-documentary, a little over 30 minutes in length. It showcased Ibrahim al-Rubaish, a senior leader and mufti, along with an unidentified individual only known as Abu Yazeed, singing the praises of al-Awlaki’s life, character, and service, along with a previously unreleased speech, or as researcher J.M. Berger called it, an “early draft” of a later speech, recorded a year or so before his death. The release, entitled “The Martyr of Da’wah”, contained little mention of the many rulings al-Awlaki gave over the course of his time with al-Qaida, only mainly discussing the actions he undertook.
The first issue of Inspire released after his death came in July 2012. al-Awlaki had been the spear-header of the magazine’s production, responding to its advertised inquiries and advising on all aspects of content not handled already by the editor-in-chief, and his assassination threw a wrench into the process. Nevertheless, Yahya Ibrahim, Inspire magazine’s editor, wrote at the beginning of the ninth issue that “the Zionists and the crusaders thought that the magazine was gone” after the drone strike, but “failed to come to terms with the fact that the Muslim ummah is the most fertile and most generous mother that gives birth to thousands and thousands of the likes of Shaykh Anwar.”
In the aforementioned issue and the few that came after it, there contained numerous stories of encounters jihadis had with al-Awlaki, with many talking about his momentous character and dedication to the Jihad.
al-Awlaki had surpassed being a mere jihadi scholar, of the many who had died fighting with al-Qaida and other movements. He had become a figure, an image. He had become valued more for the legacy he left than the answers he gave. This legacy, cemented by the initial campaign by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, had ripple effects that would soon affect the modern-day jihadi culture for years to come.
The First of the Inspired
al-Awlaki, during his lifetime, had influenced numerous militants: Nidal Hasan, Umar Abdulmutallab, Zachary Chesser, the list goes on. The link between the majority of these people and the attacks they attempted was al-Awlaki and his teachings. However, almost all of them had direct correspondence with al-Awlaki, who advised them on religious matters both related and unrelated to the attacks they would try to carry out, with few exceptions. After al-Awlaki’s death, a new trend emerged, with more terrorist attacks in the West being influenced through his lectures with no personal correspondence or advising of any kind.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the two Chechen-American brothers who committed the Boston bombing, were revealed to have been ardent fans of al-Awlaki. Tamerlan’s computer contained numerous al-Awlaki lecture snippets, and Dzhokhar’s computer had an extensive audio collection of al-Awlaki, including his famed series “The Hereafter” alongside less mainstream lectures about jihad from post-2007, after his stint in Yemeni prison where he was tortured by authorities. On his secondary Twitter account dedicated to “Islamic insight”, Dzhokhar praised al-Awlaki and The Hereafter series in particular for its “unbelievable amount of knowledge”. Dzhokhar also was in possession of the first issue of Inspire magazine, which contained a manual entitled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”. It explains how to build the same pressure cooker bomb that would be used in the Boston bombing. The same issue also contains a transcription of al-Awlaki’s “Message to the American People and Muslims in the West”.
While the Tsarnaev brothers were among the first to be inspired by al-Awlaki’s messages after his death, the Boston attack came right before a momentous shift in the jihadi movement. Only a few months after the attack, relations between ISIS and al-Qaida that had been simmering on the Syrian battlefield would soon begin to explode into full-blown conflict, and the legacy of Anwar al-Awlaki that had been laid by one of al-Qaida’s most important branches, became caught between two warring forces who sought to claim him as their own.