"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, September 20, 2010

Walking back (slightly) on Anwar al-Awlaki

In 2003, I came around to supporting the war in Iraq, with quite a bit of force.  Part of it was relative youth, and the misplaced thrill of being a liberal who disagrees with liberal orthodoxy.  Part of it was hatred for Saddam.  A large part of it was that I came to the conclusion- and I remember where I was when this hit me, at the apartment of the girl I was seeing at the time, boring her with my vacillations on the war- that there was just so much information out there it was impossible for the administration to mess it up.  They could take all the knowledge they wanted and apply it to not messing things up.  I don't want to sound like Tom Friedman, who says his fault was trusting the Bush administration, and thus slightly shifting blame.  It was poor analysis on my part- I misread both Iraq and America.  And yet, I was certain.

That is a pretty circuitous way of beginning this piece on Anwar al-Awlaki, someone whose supposed prominence I have blasted.  Certainty is the death of good analysis, which I what I suppose I aspire to.  It is incredible to me that people like Kristof, Peretz, and Krauthammer can still be so strident and certain about things when they were deeply and fundamentally wrong about the major FP question of the last decade. 

So I want to walk back, a little.  I do think al-Awlaki is a threat, as his knowledge of English and of America allows him to manipulate things in this country more than bin Laden.  That said, he is at most a useful tool- in the right hands he can be very dangerous.   I think as the anti-Muslim bigotry in the US gets ramped up and endorsed at high levels he will be able to strike a chord, especially among young Muslims who have are probably increasingly disillusioned about what it means to practice Islam in America (note: that is speculation on my part.  I admit to not having my finger on the pulse of the teenage Muslim community). 

But I am not going to sprint backwards.  For instance, I'm probably not going to endorse this Telegraph article from Philip Johnston, titled "Anwar al Awlaki: The New Osama Bin Laden?"  (Correct answer: no).  As a way of trying to tamp down some of the hysteria related to this dude, I will fisk in full below the jump.

You may not have heard of him before – but this is the new face of international terrorism. His name is Anwar al Awlaki – and unlike Osama bin Laden, who has not been seen in public for many years, he is loud, obvious and very dangerous. If there is an attack any time soon in London or in another Western capital, the chances are that Awlaki will be behind it. The CIA has put him on their hit-list of assassination targets, and in a rare speech on Thursday, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, name-checked Awlaki as the West’s Public Enemy No 1. 

No, you've heard of him.  And yes, if there is an attack, there is a chance that al-Awlaki will be behind it- but a small chance.  Or, rather, he will have been somewhere behind it, but it will have been planned and organized by other men, who are far more dangerous.  I can't argue with the idea that he is the "new face of international terrorism"- but that is far more the fault of articles like this.   After all, Derek Jeter is the face of baseball, but he is far from the best player.  He's just been built up.  And yes, I am directly comparing Derek Jeter to a dangerous Islamic militant, and no, I won't take it back.

So, who is Awlaki and why are intelligence agencies so worried about him? To some extent, he is the creation of the West’s success in restraining al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and the lawless borderlands of north-west Pakistan. Bin Laden’s terror organisation, if not exactly beaten, has been scattered. Where, once most of the terrorist plots against Western targets could be traced back to Pakistan (specifically, the tribal areas of Waziristan), the proportion dropped to 75 per cent three years ago and is now down to 50 per cent. The reason is that a lot of al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters, especially the Arabs, have relocated to Somalia or to Yemen – and it is there where Awlaki rules the roost. 

A couple of things to talk about in this paragraph.  There is an argument going around as to whether or not the rise of AQAP is because of the slow demise of the main branch in the Af-Pak region, or whether they were inevitable.  I personally believe that their sudden stature is because there is a growing void, but that they would have formed and been important and powerful even without the decline of the old guard.  I think the events worked in tandem.  But it is an interesting argument.  However, where this paragraph loses me- and loses me because I am on the cliff and the paragraph sprinted the fuck off the edge- is where is says that Awlaki "rules the roost" in Yemen.  Perhaps he means a literal roost, about which I have no such knowledge, but if it metaphorically means that Awlaki is in charge of AQAP, it is 100% wrong.  So wrong, in fact, that it negates anything that might be right.

But he is not a gun-toting terrorist warlord like bin Laden. Awlaki, 39, is a preacher, broadcasting his Islamist ideology in sermons on the internetinternet-based, with would-be terrorists acting alone simply because they have heard Awlaki’s call to jihad on their PC, the chances of stumbling upon it are reduced. 

This is fair.  Forget what I said about every right thing being negated.  This is the main threat he poses, but it is a far different kind of threat than bin Laden and Zawahiri.  I tend to think that the idea of "inspiration" is nebulous at best.  Lone wolves may be a problem, but without training or organizational support they are more likely to be, at worst, on the scale of the Unabomber or a school shooter.  This is scary and dangerous, but it isn't existential.  Some kid in the US who stumbles across Awlaki from a link in Maxim ("Hot Beards to Get You Laid!") and is thus radicalized isn't going to get plutonium.  He might try to hook up with a group, but then that takes away the fear of overlooking them.

The first time that many people heard Awlaki’s name was at the turn of the year. It is said that he recruited and mentored Umar Abdulmutallab, the young African who attempted to blow up a plane carrying hundreds of passengers over Detroit on Christmas Day, by detonating a device in his underpants. 

Yes, but he didn't provide the material or anything, or get him on the plane.  And "it is said" is kind of a weasel phrase. 

However, Awlaki has been on Western intelligence’s radar for some years, as his connections with terrorist plotters, including the September 11 hijackers and the July 7 London bombers, gradually became apparent. 

This is where it gets interesting.  I'll skip over some biographical stuff, because it is pretty well-known and it is lunch time and I am hungry.

ncreasingly, he came under the influence of radical Islamists, notably the Yemeni, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an ally of Osama bin Laden. He allegedly worked for a charitable organisation that the FBI believed was a front for funneling money to terrorists. Some of the September 11 hijackers reportedly respected Awlaki as a religious figure and two of the hijackers who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon building attended a mosque where he preached. 

Respecting him as a religious figure is far from making him central to the attacks.  Preaching in a mosque to people who were already pretty damn radical doesn't make him the point-man of terrorism.  None of this makes him a good guy or viable poker buddy, of course, but it also is far from making him the puppet-master. 
His apparent connection to the September 11 attacks was one of many embarrassments for the FBI. AwlakiAwlaki four times, and one detective told the 9/11 Commission that he believed he “was at the centre of the 9/11 story”. It is believed that he kept the hijackers “spiritually focused”. was under investigation in 1999, but the agency concluded he was not a danger and shut down the operation a year later. After the September 11 attacks, the FBI interviewed 

Again: a player, not a leader.  

Despite the FBI’s suspicions, Awlaki was able to return to Yemen in 2002. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he later turned up in London, where he stayed for two years, speaking at conferences hosted by British Muslim organisations. However, he did not come to MI5’s notice until after he returned to Yemen in 2004. It was about then that Awlaki made the transition from preacher to operational terrorist mastermind, using his charismatic appeal and jihadi rhetoric to fire up potential recruits. 

Urrgh.  I might skip a lot, because I don't want to have to keep saying this.  Getting people fired up is, of course, key when you are asking people to kill themselves for somebody in the sky, but that doesn't make you an "operational terrorist mastermind."  The two clauses in the last sentence almost entirely contradict each other, actually.   Really, if you read it correctly, it essentially says "...(he) made the transition from preacher to really excellent preacher."  

He speaks perfect English, unlike many al-Qaeda leaders, which gives him a broader appeal. He also encourages his followers to think about mounting small-scale attacks that can cause widespread fear without always trying to stage a September 11-style “spectacular” which risks alerting the authorities.
As Evans said: “His 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 audiences. 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.” 

 Beside saying that he speaks English and then qouting someone else (in this case, an MI5 chief) saying the same thing, the "lone wolf" theory is reiterated.  And, again, a lone wolf can do substantial damage, but it isn't a reason to go into full-fledged panic mode or change the course of our war against radical fundamentalism.  Focus on the leaders.  He is scary because he speaks English, and, I suspect, we focus on him because he is easy to understand.  And after all, some guy who speaks English has to be smarter than someone who just speaks squiggly nonsense, right?

Awlaki is best known for “Constants on the Path of Jihad”, a series of lectures available on popular internetIslamist forums, such as YouTube, where he has 1,900 videos. He reads the Arabic text and translates what he has read into English, offering his commentary on what the text means for Muslims. He maintains that violent jihad is an obligation for every Muslim. His lectures have been found in possession of almost every radical who has executed, or attempted to execute, attacks on Western targets.
They include the July 7 bombers in London, who used to meet in a bookshop that sold lectures by Awlaki. 

This is the perfect example of reaching.  That bookshop presumably sold lots of lectures, some by people who have been long dead.  It isn't an actual "connection".  Maybe the bookshop also sold Tuesdays with Morrie.  Does that make Albom a terrorist mastermind?  (Yes).  

Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas last November, had asked for Awlaki’s advice in emails about a suicide attack. There is evidence that he had direct contact with the Canadian-based terrorists known as the Toronto 18 and court records show that three out of the five men convicted for plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, were inspired by Awlaki’s lectures and believed they contained a fatwa to strike in the US.

Got that?  Yes, this shows that he can inspire people to do bad things, and we've said that we have to be worried: but inspiring some people who were in contact with another guy who did something awful doesn't make you the boss.  

It is the accessibility of Awlaki’s message on the internet that most alarms intelligence chiefs and the fact that his centre of operations marks a shift in the centre of gravity of al-Qaeda from Pakistan/Afghanistan towards Yemen and east Africa. MI5 has seen a surge in its casework related to Yemen – the headquarters of al-Qaeda’s Arabian peninsula affiliate. In April, the CIA named Awlaki as a specially designated global terrorist, which effectively places him on an international hit-list as someone who has declared war on the West.
He may not have the vaulting ambitions of Osama bin Laden to cause massive carnage; but unlike the reclusive al-Qaeda leader, he is a clear and present danger. 

I refuse to repeat myself again.  I will conclude with conciliation: I like the phrase "vaulting ambition".  It sounds appealingly British. 

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