A shortened version of this article has been published on Comment is Free
It is now clear US Army Major Nidal Hasan had a series of connections to the Islamist cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki . For those of us who have studied, with increasing concern, the extreme teachings of this cleric, this tragedy is the inevitable consequence of un-checked Islamist radicalisation. This situation has been made all the more distressing by the apparent lack of concern shown by the US Intelligence and Military authorities in taking Awlaki’s influence seriously.
Even before Major Nidal had fired a single bullet in Fort Hood, the US authorities knew about his increasingly vocal radicalisation and that he had attended the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virgina at the time Awlaki was its head Imam. Nidal had also been the subject of an FBI investigation after it was discovered that he made communication with Awlaki by email. There was certainly no lack of overt clues.
Inayat Bunglawala is right to say that most Islamic scholars, particularly in Britain, are opponents of the extremist fighting talk that is replete in Awlaki’s sermons. Even within political Islam, Awlaki’s teachings fall within the most extreme, Al Qaeda-aligned territory. Indeed, according to Charles E. Allen, the US Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis and Chief Intelligence Officer, Awlaki is the former spiritual leader to three of the 9/11 hijackers. He was also identified by the 9/11 Commission report as having provided advice to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khaled Almihdar and Nawaf Alhazmi.
What should concern us most, however, is this. Awlaki has a huge internet following amongst Muslims, all over the world. His sermons, delivered in word perfect English and Arabic, are downloaded and shared by vast numbers of people in the Middle East and in the West. On his blog, which has now been taken down, his articles together with the stories of his scrapes with the FBI and his incarceration in Yemen, have earned him the status as the pre-eminent crossover Arabic-speaking theoretician of armed Jihad.
Most disturbingly of all, Awlaki has been actively promoted by some of the United Kingdom’s most prominent Islamist organisations. Inayat Bunglawala’s description of Awlaki’s relationship with these organisations is an understatement of the seriousness of the problem. There are two points that are central to Bunglawala’s discussion of Awlaki’s connection in the UK. The first is that when Islamic organisations began inviting Awlaki to this country in the late 1990s, Awlaki was then still a mainstream, moderate imam with sensible views and showed “no hint of his later extremism”. The second, that Awlaki only became radicalised due to the US war against Iraq in 2003, and is therefore somehow the product of Western foreign policy. However, under greater scrutiny, neither of these claims stand up, even from the data available in the public domain on Awlaki.
A Washington Post report examined tax records from as early as 1998, which showed that Awlaki served as vice president of a charity (CSSW) founded by his then patron Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni politician who is named as an associate of Al-Qaeda. The CSSW has been described a “front organization to funnel money to terrorists”. The FBI also know that he was paid a visit in 2000 by an associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the blind sheikh, who was convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The report also states that in 1999, Awlaki was investigdated by the FBI “when it learnt that he may have been visited by a “procurement agent” for bin Laden”.
In late 2002, Awlaki made a trip back to the USA, where he visited Ali al-Timimi, who was the time was accused by US prosecutors of recruiting Muslims to fight against US troops in Afghanistan. Timimi was convicted in 2005 and is now serving a life sentence for inciting followers to fight with the Taliban against Americans.
Inayat Bunglawala refers to an interview of Awlaki in the National Geographic from 2001, in which Awlaki’s responses are portrayed as reasonable and moderate. But what the interview doesn’t tell us is that in reality Awlaki had already been investigated twice by the FBI for his connections with Al-Qaeda. He was on his best behaviour. When Awlaki conducted another interview with IslamOnline – the website founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi – he suggested that Mossad were behind the 9/11 attacks.
Therefore, by the time Awlaki was first invited to the UK by British Islamic organisations, he was, even by the Islamist standards, no moderate scholar. His actions show that he was a well known activist with a highly confrontational message for the cause of violent Jihad, long before the second Gulf War.
But it is what happened from 2002 onwards that is more important in the UK context. Since that date, Awlaki has been invited to speak in person, or via video link-up, by a large number of private Muslim organisations, university Islamic societies and registered charities which have benefited from government funding. They have promoted him, in spite of or perhaps because of, Awlaki’s track record and his increasingly explicit message exhorting Muslims to support violent Jihad.
Later that year, at an event organised by the East London Mosque (ELM) in December 2003, Awlaki addressed Muslims on the subject of terrorism arrests in the UK and urged them to never report on or turn over their fellow Muslims, under any circumstances. Two months prior in October 2003, the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), an organisation closely associated with the ELM, invited Awlaki to speak at its ‘expoislamia’ event. In January 2009, the same ELM hosted another event, entitled ‘The End of Time’, with Awlaki this time as delivering a video message. In spite of the fact that Awlaki’s “presence” at the event was reported in the national press, ELM refused to condemn Awlaki’s ideology or even cancel the meeting.
As late as 2005 Inayat Bunglawala and Awlaki were both listed as co- supporter of an organisation called ‘Stop Political Terror’ (SPT) which aimed to protect the civil rights of Muslims charged with extremism. One of individuals that SPT campaigned for was Babar Ahmad, who ran Azzam Publications, a pro-jihad website which, according to his indictment was “used to recruit individuals to be mujahideen and to solicit and raise funds and assistance for jihad”.
Osama Saeed, who now is poised to represent the Scottish National Party (SNP) for Glasgow Central in Parliament, wrote in his blog in 2006:
“Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki was originally hounded in the US because two of the 9/11 bombers happened to pray at his mosque. Many of my Muslim readers will either know him personally or have heard his lectures. He preached nothing but peace, and I pray he will be able to do so again.”
Saeed continues to cling on to the falsehood that Awlaki was a moderate when he praised his message of “nothing but peace” three years ago. He also references the National Geographic interview as proof of Awlaki’s moderateness, the citation of which is fast becoming the favoured get-out route for Islamists who want to justify their support of Awlaki.
Azad Ali is a civil servant in HM Treasury. He is the President of the Civil Service Islamic Society and sits on the council of Liberty. In January 2009, the Mail on Sunday reported Mr Ali’s extreme Islamist views in entries he had written on the IFE’s blog, ‘Between the Lines’ on which he has gushed about his “love” for the “Sheikh”, and then went on to justify Awlaki’s view that American Muslims who voted in elections were people who had “humiliated themselves by voting for candidates who have no serious concern for their issues”.
One of the directors of the MAB, Anas Altikriti, is now with the Cordoba Foundation which sponsored an event this summer in the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall called ‘Beyond Guantanamo’ that was to feature an online video address by Awlaki.
Cage Prisoners (CP) is a successor organisation to Stop Political Terror, which also campaigns for Muslims who have been detained or imprisoned. They are also the most active supporters of Awlaki in the UK today. The CP website contains an extensive and friendly interview between Awlaki and Moazzam Begg, one of its directors and a former Guantanamo detainee. In August 2009, CP were the organisers of an event in the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall in which guests were promised the treat of a live video link-up with Awlaki, who the CP regard as an “Inspirational Imam”. In the weeks before the event, CP were informed by the local council that their event could only go ahead if they cancelled the video address by Awlaki. CP complied with this, although they issued a statement on their site which refused to acknowledge Awlaki’s extremist nature.
The notion that Awlaki was previously a moderate imam whose public and personal journey to the extremes of violent Islamism happened relatively recently and long after British organisations endorsed and supported him is a false one. There are a host of organisations and individuals who operate within the Islamist landscape in this country who have, at one point or another, praised or defended Awlaki. I have listed only some of the British organisations which will have been aware of Awlaki’s views. Many of their leaders will have pored over every word and inflection he made in his articles and sermons. They will have been supporters of Awlaki’s rhetoric because of his message of violent Jihad and not in spite of it.
The US authorities are not the only ones who have been slow in responding to their own intelligence on Awlaki. British institutions have been equally lethargic, sometimes even supportive, in responding to organisations and individuals who have embraced and endorsed the ideology of Awlaki in their campaigns, seminars, public meetings and broadcasts. Whereas people who have pointed out the dangerous potential of Awlaki have been allowed to be defamed as Muslim-haters or self-loathing Muslim hypocrites.
Although the leadership of the Awlaki-supporting organisations cannot have mistaken him for a moderate, the same does not necessarily hold true for their rank and file. Ordinary Muslims, turning up at events at which Awlaki was promoted, may well have taken on trust the assertion that he is a religious authority with prodigious qualifications and a sincere and important message. It is these ordinary members who have been imperilled, by being exposed to jihadi theology in its purest form. They have been betrayed by their leadership.
The supporters of these organisations need to think long and hard about how their leadership came to champion Awlaki. We must also give serious consideration to the question on whether the leadership of these organisations should be trusted in the future.