The Global Jihad Internet Forum Launches New Sub-forum Dedicated to Anwar al-‘Awlaqi: A Sign of His Growing Influence?

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) jihadi-takfiri Internet forum has launched a new sub-forum/section (qism) dedicated to the lectures of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi (Awlaki, Aulaqi), the militant American Muslim preacher currently in Yemen and believed to be a member of or affiliated with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The Arabic announcement reads: “Glad tidings, the inauguration/opening of a sub-forum/section for the lectures of Shaykh Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, may God protect him.”

The inauguration (or “opening [for the first time],” to use a more direct translation of the Arabic announcement) of a new sub-forum on one of the most prominent Arabic-language jihadi-takfiri Internet forums is significant in that it provides further evidence of al-‘Awlaqi’s growing appeal outside of his original English-language audience base. The last three major videos or audio messages he’s been featured in or recorded have all been in Arabic. Two videos, an “interview” produced by AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Malahim; Epics, Epic Battles) Media Foundation that was released in May 2010 and an independently-released (it seems) November 2010 video message were both released first in Arabic and only later in an English translation.

Various lectures and writings of his have been translated into a growing number of languages used by jihadi-takfiris including Urdu, Russian, Somali, Arabic, Indonesian, French, German, and Bosnian.  Al-‘Awlaqi has also slowly but steadily become a more popular figure in graphic artwork produced by cyber jihadi-takfiris and posted to Arabic Internet forums.

Despite the growing evidence suggesting that his influence is increasing over a broader spectrum of the jihadi-takfiri community (or communities), his exact role, if any, in AQAP remains unknown and debated.  Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that al-‘Awlaqi’s role in AQAP is frequently exaggerated in North American and European media because he is more well known to its journalists and speaks English.  Johnsen has also argued that the militant preacher’s role, however, is likely not as key to AQAP as the roles of its senior leadership, which includes amir Nasir al-Wihayshi, deputy amir Sa’id al-Shihri, senior military commander Qasim al-Raymi, and chief ideologue ‘Adel al-‘Abab.  In a critique of Johnsen’s argument, Thomas Hegghammer argued in a November 2010 Foreign Policy magazine online article that al-‘Awlaqi is likely AQAP’s head of foreign operations and thus should be a primary target of intelligence agencies.  Anonymous U.S. government sources claim that evidence was uncovered in Usama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout that the Al-Qa’ida Central founder dismissed a change in AQAP’s leadership from al-Wihayshi to al-‘Awlaqi, though the evidence of this claim remains unavailable for critical examination.

Whether or not al-‘Awlaqi is a member of AQAP, he is part of an informal group of charismatic scholar (or preacher)-ideologues who provide AQC, AQAP, and their sister movements with a unique mix of, however contested, an element of juridical authority, personal charisma, and rhetorical and oratorical skills.  Together with figures such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, and Khalid al-Husaynan, al-‘Awlaqi serves as part of the vanguard of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend’s charismatic “missionaries of jihad,” an argument I develop further in a forthcoming article.

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Introduction to a series on Ibn Taymiyyah

Although much of my current research focuses on the contemporary trends in jihadi intellectual thought, Western jihadi networks, and online jihadi activities; my passion on the side is understanding classical and medieval Islamic intellectual thought as a means to better understand the jihadi phenomenon in the context of the broad sweep of Islamic intellectual history. Therefore, I have taken a keen interest in understanding the life and work of Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiyyah since he is viewed by many Western terrorism analysts as well as jihadis as the foundation for jihadi ideology.

While writing my master’s thesis more than year ago, I discovered through the guidance of my graduate advisor as well as reading some of the academic literature that the basis for understanding Ibn Taymiyyah has been skewed as a consequence of much of his thought being filtered through Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” and the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This suggested that it was crucial to further investigate his thought unfiltered.

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A group of ‘ulama convened a conference on March 27-28, 2010 in the city of Mardin, Turkey that revisited Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous fatwa on the status of the city of Mardin and whether it was in Balad al-Silm (land of peace) or Balad al-Harb (land of war). This fatwa was also previously examined (along with three other fatawa) in Yahya Michot’s excellent book Muslims under non-Muslim Rule: Ibn Taymiyya, which I reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Therefore, I will not get into the substance of it here.

What makes this all important in terms of bridging the gap between the classical and medieval to the contemporary is that as a result of the conclusions made at the Mardin Conference, it irked some jihadis. I am only aware of Dr. Akram Hijazi, Adam Gadahn, and Anwar al-Awlaki’s rebuttal of the conference. If anyone is aware of others please pass the primary literature along.

As such, I believed I could try and fill a gap in the literature by examining the responses of contemporary jihadis to the conference in light of the primary and secondary literature on the actual fatwa. It is the hope of this author that it will help shed more light on the interaction between the historicity of the fatwa and what one could describe as an “imagined history.”

Thus, this author proposes to first blog about it as a way to expound his preliminary thoughts and receive open source peer review prior to submitting it to an actual peer reviewed journal. Not only will this be an innovative way of leveraging Web 2.0 technology with academic pursuits, but it will also hopefully foster a greater discourse and allow more access to this type of information.

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Prior to delving into that discussion, I felt it was necessary to read more on Ibn Taymiyyah’s life and thought. During my research I came across a recently published edited volume titled Ibn Taymiyyah and His Times. While reading it I felt it would be worthwhile to share some of its insights on Ibn Taymiyyah.

As a prologue to an examination of jihadi responses to the challenge of the Mardin Conference, I will highlight in forthcoming posts valuable information from the edited volume that may help illuminate the complexities in Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought in a more sophisticated manner than much of the naïve proclamations about him in popular Western and jihadi accounts.

Jihadism and the ‘Ulama

Two days ago, J.M. Berger of IntelWire wrote an article describing a recent trend in the statements and video releases published by Adam Gadahn and Anwar al ‘Awlaki that have tried to discredit the ‘ulama (religious scholars). These ideas, though, are not new, but provide further example of a trend, which has pervaded some of the key Jihadist intellectual thinkers in the post-Caliphate era (the Caliphate was abolished in 1924).

Today, Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, would not be considered a global jihadist, but his ideas became a foundation for later thinkers to build off of and further radicalize his thought. al-Banna did not understand how the ‘ulama could do nothing in the face of what he percieved was happening to the Muslim world. He viewed the Muslim Brothers’ values as a refutation of the values of al-Azhar University (the most respected Sunni place of high education) and how the university dealt with contemporary issues. The late Richard P. Mitchell, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, summed up al-Banna’s thought on the ‘ulama, stating:

Azhar had persisted in a time-worn, anachronistic approach to Islam and its teachings—dry, dead, ritualistic, and irrelevant to the needs of living Muslims.[1]

Sayyid Qutb, who is viewed as the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, was critical of the ‘ulama as well. He believed they were opportunists that were using religious texts to their own advantage, which is pretty rich coming from Qutb, a man that has a degree in literature and created his own innovative way of understanding Islam.[2] Even more zealous over the problems with the ‘ulama was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, who coined the term the near enemy as well as led the group Tanzim al-Jihad (later Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. These are his thoughts from his book Jihad: The Neglected Duty:

There are some who say that what we should do now is busy ourselves with seeking knowledge, for how can we struggle in the cause of Allah while we are lacking the knowledge, which is fard (obligatory) to seek? But we have not heard anyone who says that it is permitted to abandon an Islamic order or an obligation of the obligations of Islam because of knowledge, especially if this obligation is Jihad. So how can we abandon a fard ‘ayn (individual obligation) because of fard kifayah (collective obligation)? … So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what is fard is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.[3]

More recently, Osama bin Laden argued:

Despite of this hard siege imposed on you O my Islamic Ummah, you still have a great opportunity to regain your freedom to go out of the submission to and the dependence of this Crusader/Zionist alliance. To reach that, you should free yourself from the fetters of humiliation and subservience shackling us by the agents of this alliance who are our countries’ governors and their helpers especially the fetters of the Ulamaa of the Sultan, as well the fetters of the Islamic groups which transform their method to recognize the governor who betrayed the religion and the Ummah, and they join the political process of the state of this governor, and no difference for them if they are in the rule or opposition.[4]

Further, last month, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated:

This orientation has the purer methodology and the more correct doctrine, because it relies on the explicit and definite proofs of the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic Way], and cites the historical and political reality of the Muslim Ummah, and believes neither in the fatwas of the “Fuqahaa” of the Marines nor in the hired ‘Ulama in Riyadh, Cairo and Qatar.[5]

Finally, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian cleric who mentored Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and is considered the most influential living global jihadist theorist, has written about what he describes as the murji’ah (non-righteous scholars) on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:

I advise them not be deceived by the ambiguities of the phony scholars, who confuse the truth with falsehood and confuse the path to Paradise with the path to Hellfire.[6]

The Mujahideen do not need you, half men and with no resolve. They do not need any advice on Jihad from scholars who are paid for and defeated. They do not need to ask you if it is okay with you or if their Jihad is compatible with you thinking. No, they do not need that. They have all the wisdom and the vision that they need. Die in your anger, and continue your criticism of the Mujahideen. You cannot destroy their resolve; your poisoned pins would not affect their Jihad. Nothing will affect them.[7]

Added up, one can see that individuals involved with the jihadist movement have tried to discredit the ‘ulama for quite some time now. One of the goals is to weaken state institutions linked to corrupt governments, as well as weakening potential enemies. Another is due to the lack of true religious legitimacy by many in the movement. As such, they are compensating and trying to discredit individuals who are trained in the religion and understand that their understanding of Islam is not based on the classical tradition.

[1] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212-213.

[2] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 133.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, Jihad: The Neglected Duty (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 2000), 46-48.

[4] Osama bin Laden, The Way To Rescue Palestine (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2008).

[5] Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade: Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2010).

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, A message in support of the Mujahideen in Somalia and exposing the doubts created the Ullamah of Dajjaal (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad, 2009).

[7] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, The Caravan is Moving and the Dogs are Barking (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad).

Between Memes and Blurred Vision

Note: The point of this article is to explain and show why Anwar al-Awlaki is not as important as individuals in the media and politicians make him out to be. Obviously, he is a threat and we should try and counteract his influence, but it should be based on a real understanding of him and his role in AQAP.

As one who follows Yemen on a daily basis it is disheartening when it becomes the focal point of the news following an attempted, failed, or successful terrorist attack. Out of the woodwork comes individuals who have no context, grasp, or understanding of Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), yet they act as if they know everything about Yemen. One of the most problematic trends since the Fort Hood shooting and the failed Christmas Day plot is the fundamental misunderstanding of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an eleven month period, al-Awlaki has gone from an obscure figure with a cultish following — from Muslims that have no formal education in Islam — in the English-speaking world to supposedly the next Osama bin Laden. It is completely delusional for one to even ponder that thought since it is so far from the truth. This trend has gone completely off the rails especially following the most recent failed cargo plot. In an article from the Guardian, it states:

US officials believe Asiri [the alleged bomb maker in the plot] is working closely with the radical US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has provided the “spiritual” support for attacks on the US as well as being a driving force behind them.

First off, who is this US official and where is there any proof of this? This idea has clearly been plucked out of thin air. Before explaining why this statement is completely wrong, it would be prudent to extrapolate on al-Awlaki’s position within AQAP. As Gregory D. Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, has been stating for almost a year now, al-Awlaki is middle management within the AQAP branch.

In addition, the recent news that Yemen is putting al-Awlaki on trial in absentia is a sleight of hand. It might appease those who do not know any better, but those who do realize this is a complete charade since al-Awlaki is not the man Yemen should be worried about. If Yemen actually focused their attention on the senior leadership in AQAP one would feel more comfort when Yemeni government officials state they are going after AQAP. The key leaders one should be far more focused on and worried about are Nasir al-Wihayshi, Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri, Adil al-Abab, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh as well as others. Furthermore, Ibrahim al-Asiri would not be taking spiritual guidance from an individual like al-Awlaki, but rather someone like al-Abab who is one of if not the key religious figure(s) within the AQAP branch.

Indeed, one should not discout the potential thorn in the side al-Awlaki can create since he speaks English and can attract westerners to the cause, but one has to remember al-Awlaki has scant influence in the Arab world or in the internal matters of AQAP. He is only worthwhile for potential recruitment and external operations at best. Most of the guys attracted to Al-Awlaki, though, are not field ready or battle tested individuals. Moreover, al-Awlaki lacks military experience or any type of field training. Brian Fishman, an expert on al-Qaeda, recently tweeted that individuals in the movement regard battlefield experience more important than theory, and as Fishman stated: “Awlaki is a keyboard jockey.” As a result, it has been foolish on the part of the media and pundits to make al-Awlaki more than he actually is. For the Christian Science Monitor to argue that al-Awlaki had a larger role in the 9/11 attacks is simply preposterous. Yes, he knew two of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks who had attended al-Awlaki’s mosque, but that does not mean al-Awlaki had intimate knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, in the 9/11 Commision it states there was not enough evidence to implicate al-Awlaki. It takes a big leap of logic to connect al-Awlaki as an important figure in the 9/11 attacks. These types of misrepresentations in some respects has manifested in a self-fulfilling prophecy that al-Awlaki will become more important to the AQAP branch. Not until individuals started over inflating his importance did al-Awlaki appear in any official AQAP media. Just because he speaks English and one can understand him does not make him the top guy in AQAP or on par with Bin Laden.

The jury is still out on whether al-Awlaki has risen within the AQAP branch in the past year due to individuals’ hysteria over his connections with some past plots. Based on the information we have, it is far-fetched to believe he is more than a mid-level individual within AQAP that could inspire English speakers to join their jihad. The key is, though, the real power and potential mayhem comes from the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian leadership in AQAP. al-Asiri takes cues from those guys not al-Awlaki whose influence is only in the English-speaking world.

It would be a tragedy, though, for individuals with influence to create policies based off of false premises, such as droning al-Awlaki as the silver bullet to solving the problem of AQAP. Another short-sided policy is removing al-Awlaki’s videos from YouTube. If politicians knew a thing they would realize that it will not change anything since al-Awlaki’s materials are also on forums, websites, blogs, facebook, and other places. Further, there are other radical preachers out there too.

As such, the idea that al-Awlaki has a large influence in AQAP or is the spiritual leader of AQAP or is the next Bin Laden has to end. Focus on Wihayshi, Raymi, and Shihri instead. This first step will then allow us to make better policy decisions and further allow us to better understand the AQAP branch and hopefully eradicate it from Yemen.