Awlaki’s Online Propaganda Is Influencing Muslims Far From His Yemen Base

July 7, 2010 - 3:25 AM
The radical, U.S.-born cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, now hiding in Yemen, is making effective use of the Internet to spread extremist ideas to English-speaking Muslims.
Anwar al-Awlaki

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in an October 2008 file photo. (AP File Photo/Muhammad ud-Deen)

(CNSNews.com) – The arrest in Singapore of a Muslim soldier who made contact online with Anwar Al-Awlaki provides further evidence that the U.S.-born cleric is making effective use of the Internet to spread extremist ideas to English-speaking Muslims.
 
Authorities in the small Southeast Asian country, a close ally of Washington, said 20-year-old Muhammad Fadil had begun “avidly” surfing the Internet in search of jihadist propaganda while taking a college course.
 
Through online lectures by clerics including Awlaki, Fadil “became convinced that it was his religious duty to undertake armed jihad alongside fellow militants and strive for martyrdom,” the Home Affairs Ministry said a statement.
 
Fadil subsequently communicated with Awlaki online, expressing a desire to fight alongside the cleric, it said. He also voiced “interest in traveling to places like Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to undertake militant jihad.”
 
A suspected al-Qaeda recruiter with whom Fadil made contact online encouraged him to fight in Afghanistan, the statement said.
 
The soldier also accessed information on bomb-making, and produced and posted a video clip “glorifying martyrdom and justifying suicide bombing.”
 
The ministry said Fadil has been held under Singapore’s Internal Security Act, legislation providing for detention without charge.
 
Fadil is not the only Singaporean recently found to have been seeking inspiration from Awlaki, who is based in Yemen and closely associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
 
Two others, Muhammad Jailani, 44, and Muhammad Thahir, 27, have been placed under “restriction orders” for two years for suspicious activities.
 
Jailani, a religious teacher, gave students and others recordings of lectures by Awlaki calling on Muslims to wage jihad against non-Muslims and “enemies” of Islam, the ministry said.
 
Thahir, one of Jailani’s students, traveled to Yemen to enroll in an educational institution run by someone associated with Osama bin Laden, “and to seek out Anwar al-Awlaki and other radicals with a view to participating in armed jihad overseas if the opportunity presented itself.”
 
Thahir was unsuccessful in contacting Awlaki, began to have doubts about violent jihad, and returned home.
 
A “restriction order” limits a person’s right to travel, change address or employment, make public statements or participate in any group activity without the approval of security authorities.
 
Inspiring extremists from the U.S. to Asia
 
Awlaki has been on the FBI’s radar screen since at least 1999 when, according to the 9/11 Commission report, the Bureau learned that “he may have been contacted by a possible procurement agent for bin Laden.”
 
The New Mexico-born Awlaki, who was allegedly linked to three of the 9/11 hijackers through mosques he ran in San Diego and Virginia, left the U.S. in 2002, eventually settling in Yemen where he spent 16 months in detention.
 
After his release in late 2007 he  began using a Web site (since shut down) to comment on news events, review books, answer questions and post audio lectures under such titles as “Allah is preparing us for victory” and “The dust will never settle down.”
 
In one mid-2008 posting, he commented on the value of the Internet: “In the old times it used to take a few days to travel, for example, from Makkah to Madina which are only 450 km apart. Now we can communicate all over the globe within seconds; text, audio and video, all within seconds.”
 
Awlaki’s reach into Muslim communities in English-speaking countries has prompted increasing concern among law enforcement agencies in recent months.
 
In an AQAP video released in May, he described as his “students” both Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas last November, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian would-be bomber of a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day.
 
Awlaki’s online lectures reportedly motivated a group of American Muslims of Somali descent who traveled to Somalia to fight alongside Islamists, and a 2008 trial of foreign-born Muslims who plotted to attack Fort Dix, N.J., heard an informant testify that an Awlaki lecture had inspired some of the group to target U.S. soldiers.
 
Indian security officials reported last year that in claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks there, jihadists were citing Awlaki lectures.
 
Indian-based security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman said Tuesday that while the poor command of English of bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda terrorists had hindered their communication with English speaking followers, Awlaki did not have that problem.
 
“Under the guidance of Awlaki, the AQAP is seeking to capitalize on the interest of self-radicalized elements in the English-speaking world to take to jihad,” he said.
 
Pointing to the fact that Christmas Day bombing suspect Abdulmutallab was a student with a valid visa to enter the U.S., Raman said AQAP was attempting “to recruit Muslims who can travel freely across the Western world and use them for acts of terrorism against the West.”
 
Fans spread message
 
Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin, a research analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said Wednesday that with his good grasp of English Awlaki was able to expand his influence to Southeast Asia, where Muslims are generally well-versed in the language.
 
“Awlaki has his speeches revolve around the notion that Muslims are being attacked and there is thus the need for self defense,” he said. They highlight conflicts in Muslim areas, along with Islamic verses that are “misinterpreted and devoid of … contextual significance.”
 
What makes his propaganda effective, Yasin said, was the use of the Internet.
 
“His videos are circulated not just in extremist Web sites, but also in YouTube,” he said. “Individual fans further spread his message with transcriptions of his statements and remaking of the videos posted in English, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesian websites.”
 
Mainstream media reports about Awlaki’s statements in themselves also contributed the radicalization process of his followers, he added.
 
Yasin said the response to radicals’ use of the Internet should include creating Web sites that “counter the existing extremism in the cyber domain.”
 
“These counter ideological materials too would have to be disseminated offline to reach a wider range of audience and the public at large,” he said, adding that education about racial and religious harmony, avoiding stereotyping, and the safe use of the Internet also had an important part to play.
 
Terror target
 
Although the Singapore government says there was no evidence Fadil intended to carry out attacks at home, the strategically-located state has been eyed by jihadists both as a source of recruitment and as a target for attack.
 
In late 2001 and early 2002 dozens of suspects were arrested in Singapore and in neighboring countries, in connection with a plot to bomb U.S., Israeli and other Western embassies and interests in Singapore.
 
The operation was the work of the regional Islamist network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), and some of those arrested had admitted receiving training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Singaporean investigators linked the plot directly to al-Qaeda based on videotape evidence found in the rubble of the house of an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan.
 
Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, with Muslims comprising about 15 percent of the population. It is one of several countries to run “deradicalization” courses aimed at weaning Muslims off radical ideas, and more than 70 JI detainees have undergone the program.
 
As part of Singapore’s drive to curb radicalism, the Islamic Religious Council, a statutory body, has since 2005 run a program aimed at ensuring religious teachers have recognized qualifications.
 
Jailani, the religious teacher who gave his students Awlaki propaganda material, was refused accreditation by the Council last year because “he lacked formal religious qualifications,” the Home Affairs Ministry said.