In recent years, major terrorist attacks - the Boston bombing, the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando - the methods of killing varied but the perpetrators shared one common element, a fascination with the American-born jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Most recently, Awlaki’s name was found in a notebook owned by the alleged Chelsea bomber, cited as an inspiration.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We’re getting new details about a notebook found on Rahami when he was captured, a notebook that includes writings about Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamic extremist, the terror recruiter….
BOB GARFIELD: Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a US drone strike five years ago, almost to the day, September 30th, 2011, but his work as an Al Qaeda propagandist and recruiter lives on.
Scott Shane is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, a book about how Awlaki came to be eliminated or, as the military like to say, quote, “removed from the battlefield.”
SCOTT SHANE: His greater importance is on the battlefield of the Internet, and killing him really enhanced his status, since many of his admirers see him as a martyr, so that he speaks today with the greater authority of martyrdom from beyond the grave.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the power of Awlaki, the martyr. What has it meant?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, this is a guy who, unlike, I think, every other major jihadist propagandist or ideologue, had a long career as a mainstream imam, as a mainstream preacher, for years before he followed the path to Al Qaeda.
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: We’re talking about ways to bring an end to this war. And we as Muslims…we want to bring an end to terrorism more than anybody else.
SCOTT SHANE: He left the US, he moved to the UK, then he moved to Yemen, and at each step he becomes more radical, more militant, more accepting of violence.
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: We are against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil.
SCOTT SHANE: Because of that long runway in which he had established his credentials as a mainstream preacher of Islam, he can kind of carry somebody from knowing nothing about the religion all the way to the idea that we are at war and it's your obligation to go shoot something up or set off a bomb.
BOB GARFIELD: He was kind of a fair-haired boy in the media in the aftermath of 9/11, even with the government. He was kind of a designated Muslim, dependable for speaking calmly and in moderation against violence but also against flawed American policy.
SCOTT SHANE: You know, this is a guy who, in early 2001, had landed as the imam at one of the big DC area mosques. And, as it turned out, he was sort of the right guy in the right place at the right time because along comes 9/11 and suddenly Americans are very interested in Islam, very interested in Al Qaeda, wondering what the hell just happened. And here is this young, very wellspoken imam who speaks American English without an accent and has a knack for explaining things. So this guy was discovered and he was in The New York Times, my paper, he was in The Washington Post, he was on NPR, he was on PBS. The Washington Post actually followed him around for a day and made a video called “Understanding Ramadan.”
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: Muslims abstain from three things during the month of Ramadan, food, drink and any sexual activity, and that is from sunrise to sunset.
SCOTT SHANE: And, at that time, he always condemned 9/11. Indeed, he said in the mosque that the special role of American Muslims was to be a bridge between the United States and a billion Muslims worldwide. His views on that later changed.
BOB GARFIELD: The other thing that happened at approximately the same moment in history was the Internet. He was an imam with not only his own decent-sized mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, but the virtual mosque of the World Wide Web.
SCOTT SHANE: Exactly. This was a guy who was an early adopter of technology. In the ‘90s he had his kid brother on the sidewalk after Friday prayers selling his sermons on cassette. Then he began publishing these boxed sets of CDs. Eventually, he had his own website, anwaralawlaki.com. He had a very active Facebook page. And finally, at the end of his life, his home became YouTube.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned the FBI investigation because of his accidental, or not accidental, connection to a couple of the 9/11 hijackers. And that's actually where his troubles began. Can you tell me what grew from that?
SCOTT SHANE: This guy was on a trajectory to become sort of a national spokesman for American Muslims. So what derailed this? He had left the US in a big hurry at the end of March in 2002, just about six months after 9/11. And the assumption had been that he had gotten sick of hostility to Islam after 9/11 and had just gotten fed up and left. When I reported this out for the book, I found out that was not the case.
BOB GARFIELD: It turns out that the FBI had pulled a kind of “Martin Luther King” on him and had surveilled him during many, many visits to prostitutes, and they had the goods.
SCOTT SHANE: Yeah, I mean the FBI was particularly interested in this guy’s sex life. They were following him because they were worried that he might have ties to Al Qaeda. They satisfied themselves that he didn't have any ties to Al Qaeda; this guy was not a terrorist. But in the process, they documented these regular weekly or biweekly visits to prostitutes in Washington hotels.
BOB GARFIELD: And you posed a really interesting question in your piece, which is, what if the FBI had sort of done the full MLK on this guy and actually discredited him on a – like a moral basis with the revelations of his use of sex workers, instead of actually having to kill him later and to create a martyr doing it? Do you know if anyone in the government ever considered the discrediting route?
SCOTT SHANE: So there was some discussion about charging him for sort of an obscure law called the Travel Act. He was crossing the line from Virginia into DC to visit these prostitutes and they could kind of come up with a case. It wasn't pursued. And, in fact, these massive files documenting his prostitution habit are only public because folks filed for them under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI was not giving them up willingly, letting alone publicizing them. But some Muslim commentators have said it might have been more effective with the often sort of puritanical young Muslim men who are particularly drawn to this guy to point out to them that he was an outrageous hypocrite. He was preaching on the sanctity of marriage – he was married with three kids at the time - while he was pursuing these prostitutes. And it was clearly his fear of being unmasked in front of his audience, which at that point was growing into a national audience, that caused him to drop everything and flee the US.
BOB GARFIELD: What about discrediting him posthumously? Is there any move afoot to let the whole Internet world know that this guy was, in fact, hypocritical in his behavior?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, I think part of the problem is the United States government is probably the least credible possible spokesman on religion with the sort of target audience. The Muslim commentators who have discussed this possibility have suggested other kinds of things, you know, an Al Jazeera documentary about the real Anwar al-Awlaki or a Muslim think tank putting out a white paper on who this guy really was. But, you know, it's tough to see how that would play out. At a time in which ISIS, the Islamic State, is using cockamamie theology to justify rape and sex slavery, would his prostitution habit actually have an impact on his popularity or would his fans rationalize it as propaganda, as a sort of attempt to smear their hero?
BOB GARFIELD: There have been calls on YouTube to take down not just the explicit calls to violent jihad but everything from this vast trove of Awlaki sermons, to diminish him as some sort of global spokesman. But it's a game of whack a mole. If you get rid of it on YouTube, it inevitably shows up elsewhere, no?
SCOTT SHANE: Exactly. I mean, YouTube, after a number of years, took down Awlaki’s most inflammatory single video, something called “A Call to Jihad,” that he recorded in 2010, and they took it down earlier this year. The other day I just put “Awlaki Call to Jihad” into Google and it took me, you know, .003 seconds to find it on another site called Dailymotion. And I'm sure if Dailymotion takes it down, I’ll be able to find it somewhere else. And particularly if his fans get the idea that there are folks trying to take Awlaki’s material off the Internet, I'm sure they'll be only too happy to put it back up. So it is a difficult proposition in a technical sense, let alone the sort of more philosophical question of whether this is what we want to do.
BOB GARFIELD: There is this problem of trying to fight a ghost. What, if anything, is the government doing about that, like now?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, the government cannot under the First Amendment go around sort of trying to censor speech of this kind. Perhaps a better approach would be to try to attach it to counter messaging. What if every time you searched for Awlaki on YouTube, you came up not only with his material, his own sermons and lectures, but you came up with news stories about his prostitution habit? Justice Brandeis once said that the way to combat bad speech is more speech, and I guess that's the way I'm inclined to think as a journalist.
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BOB GARFIELD: Scott, thank you very much.
SCOTT SHANE: Bob, thanks for having me on,
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shane is a reporter for The New York Times and author of Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone.