Awlaki's enigmatic appeal is perhaps furthered by the authorities' efforts to eliminate his message – some overriding authority has already deleted his Facebook profile, posting a severe warning to anyone who ventures to find him online – but it is clear that something about the Yemeni cleric's emaciated form and clear, well-spoken English is perilously attractive to young Muslim immigrants.
Awlaki, 39, is familiar with the frustrations felt by the current generation of young Muslims living in the West. Born in Yemen, he moved to New Mexico with his parents after his father won a Fulbright scholarship. Later, after his family had returned to Yemen and his father appointed agriculture minister, young Awlaki also followed a scholarship to the US. Throughout his studies in Engineering and Education, Awlaki was active in Muslim student unions and mosques.
Apparently aware of the appeal of language, Awlaki, unlike his counterparts in al-Qaeda, chose to address his followers in English. “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea,” he said in a recorded message, asking listeners not to "fear Jihad".
Roshonara Choudhry, daughter of a family of Bangladeshi immigrants living in Britain and a student described as "gifted" by many of her teachers, took Awlaki's message to heart. Three years ago, at a meeting between high school students and Labor MP Stephen Timms, she asked a series of piercing questions regarding the British government's role in the war in Iraq.
Then in May, at age 21, Choudhry waited for Timms to emerge from a series of regular weekly meetings with constituents and stabbed him twice in the stomach. This week, before being sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted murder, the young woman admitted she had been influenced by Awlaki's taped messages.
She said she had watched more than 100 hours of his tapes, and decided she had to punish the MP for supporting the "infidel" war in Iraq. Choudhry told police Awlaki had spoken to her as a Muslim immigrant, and that she had identified with him.
Major Nidal Hasan, a psychologist in the US Army who is charged with murdering 13 people at the military base of Fort Hood, Texas, was also inspired by Awlaki. He was later lauded by the imam, who posted a message on his blog saying Hasan had done the right thing and calling him "a hero".
Umar Farouk Abdul Muttalib, dubbed the "underwear bomber" for his attempt to bomb a flight to Detroit last Christmas, was also encouraged by Awlaki's sermons.
Now US authorities believe Awlaki played a role in the sending of bombs through the mail in packages addressed to Chicago from Yemen. "What do they want from me?" asks Awlaki in one of his sermons. "I'm only acting in accordance with my conscience."
'Real risk for attack in UK'
While completing his studies at Colorado State University, Awlaki served as head of the Muslim Student Union. Then, in the summer of 1993, he disappeared without a trace from the campus. It was only later discovered that he spent this summer training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, he was also trained in public speaking and enlistment, as well as religious studies.
In this manner Awlaki avoided prison after the September 11 attacks, despite the fact that it was later discovered that two of the terrorists, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, were sent to pray at his mosque in San Diego. Authorities say the two were very close to Awlaki, leading them to believe he knew of the 9/11 plot ahead of time.
Forced into hiding, according to his father, due to his ties with al-Qaeda, Awlaki is currently one of the most wanted men in Yemen and the US. There are also rumors that he has been placed on the elusive CIA "Shoot on Sight" list, though no official confirmation such a list exists has ever been put forth.
Two of Britain's intelligent chiefs, Jonathan Evans, who heads MI5 and John Sawers, who heads MI6, have expressed concern regarding Awlaki. Sawers described Awlaki as an “al-Qaeda leader” who “broadcasts propaganda and terrorist instruction in fluent English, over the internet.”
Evans said earlier that Awlaki's "influence is all the wider because he preaches and teaches in the English language which makes his message easier to access and understand for Western audience”.
“There is a real risk that one of his adherents will respond to his urging to violence and mount an attack in the UK, possibly acting alone and with little formal training,” he was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying.
But despite his apparent ties to so many terror attacks, Awlaki served time only once, in Yemen. In 2006 he was accused of planning the murders of US soldiers stationed in the Gulf, and was consequently for 18 months. After he was released he broadcast a sermon instructing his followers to recognize "Muslims cooperating with infidels", calling them "the devil".
Now Awlaki is turning his rage on Arab leaders cooperating with the West, calling them "puppets of infidels who pay for their services". Yemeni and United Arab Emirates leaders know he will not hesitate to call for attacks against them, too.
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook