White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday the U.S. was “actively” hunting for Awlaki, who “supports al-Qaeda’s agenda of murder and violence.”
“We are actively trying to find him and many others throughout the world that seek to do our country and to do our interests great harm,” he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Gibbs spoke after the appearance on the Internet of a new message in which the Yemen-based cleric praised accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, both of whom he called his “students.”
According to a translation of the Arabic-language message, provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Awlaki also sought to justify killing U.S. civilians.
“Non-combatants are people who do not take part in the war,” he asserted. “The American people in its entirety takes part in the war, because they elected this administration, and they finance this war.”
The message came in the form of an interview with Awlaki, conducted by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate which the U.S. last January designated a foreign terrorist organization.
The clip carried the logo of Al-Malahim Media, which researchers say is AQAP’s “media arm.”
A previous AQAP video clip, released in late April, was its first to feature Awlaki and hardened suspicions of a close association between the New Mexico-born American and the terrorist group.
U.S. press reports last month indicated that the administration has authorized operations to kill Awlaki, a development considered out of the ordinary since he is an American citizen. (In 2002, a drone-fired missile killed an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and over the past year dozens of militants have been killed in similar fashion along the Afghan-Pakistan border.)
Despite his reported inclusion on a hit list for targeted assassination, as of Monday Awlaki was not one of the 28 men on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists. He is also not among 41 suspects listed in the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, which offers cash rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of terrorist suspects.
Likewise, no references to Awlaki could be found Monday on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.
By contrast, another American citizen who has joined the al-Qaeda cause, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, does appear on the FBI most-wanted list.
And, although the Web site of the U.S. Embassies in Islamabad and Kabul contain no references to Gadahn – who is thought to be hiding out along the Afghan-Pak border – both sites do carry links to the Rewards for Justice site, where a reward of up to $1 million is offered for information leading to Gadahn’s capture.
Because both are articulate Americans in their 30s who have featured in al-Qaeda propaganda videos, Awlaki and Gadahn have naturally drawn comparisons.
Terrorism analyst Laura Mansfield argued in a recent analysis that Gadahn has been something of a failure as an al-Qaeda spokesman despite the media attention his appearances generate. Awlaki, on the other hand, seemed to provide al-Qaeda with something it had been missing in its propaganda, she said.
“Awlaki, like many of the young men and women he inspired, was born in America to immigrant parents,” Mansfield said. “He speaks to his followers in English, with Arabic religious words interspersed in his dialog. He’s young, educated, charismatic, well-spoken, and is someone with whom these young men and women can relate.
“He preaches a doctrine that incites them to take up arms against the societies and cultures that have provided them with a comfortable lifestyle, a good education, and a life of privilege. And he is successful.”
In his new message, Awlaki said he was honored to number among his students Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of shooting dead 13 people at Fort Hood last November; and Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student suspected of trying to blow up a plane as it approached Detroit last Christmas.
He did not mention Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad. The Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb at the busy New York location on May 1 has reportedly told investigators that he was inspired by Awlaki.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, Awlaki came to the FBI’s attention in 1999, after it learned “that he may have been contacted by a possible procurement agent for [Osama] Bin Laden.”
“During this investigation, the FBI learned that Awlaki knew individuals from the Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas,” it said.
The commission report said that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, came into contact with Awlaki in 2000 when he served as imam at a San Diego mosque, and that they reportedly “developed a close relationship with him.”
Awlaki later moved to Yemen, where he was detained between August 2006 and December 2007 and then released.
‘Jihad for the sake of Allah’
On Saturday, Yemen’s Saba news agency quoted the country’s security chief, Ahmed al-Anesi, as saying the manhunt for Awlaki would continue until he was captured or surrendered.
Anesi said Yemen had not been and would never be a safe haven for terrorists, but was instead a strong and active ally in the war on terror.
On May 10, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said in a newspaper interview that if Awlaki was captured he would be put on trial in Yemen for terrorist activities and not be handed over to the U.S.
A week later, AQAP leader Nasir al-Washishi released an audio message saying his group had a “religious duty” to protect Awlaki and was doing so. The message was translated by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist Web sites.
In his message released at the weekend, Awlaki said he was safe in Yemen.
“I move around among my tribesmen and in other parts of Yemen, because the people of Yemen hate the Americans, and support the people of truth and the oppressed,” he said. “I move around among the Awlaki tribe, and I get support from wide sectors of the people in Yemen …”
“There were negotiations in the past with the Yemeni government about turning myself in, but I categorically rejected this, because I am not accused of anything, to begin with,” he continued. “What am I accused of? That I call to the truth? That I call to jihad for the sake of Allah, and in defense of the Islamic nation’s causes?”