In New Era of Terrorism, Voice From Yemen Echoes

The New York Times/January 10, 2015

By Scott Shane

For more than five years now, as Western terrorism investigators have searched for critical influences behind the latest jihadist plot, one name has surfaced again and again.

In the failed attack on an airliner over Detroit in 2009, the stabbing of a British member of Parliament in London in 2010, the lethal bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and now the machine-gunning of cartoonists and police officers in Paris, Anwar al-Awlaki has proved to be a sinister and durable inspiration.

Two of those four attacks took place after Mr. Awlaki, the silver-tongued, American-born imam who joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike in September 2011.

In the age of YouTube, Mr. Awlaki’s death — or martyrdom, in the view of his followers — has hardly reduced his impact. The Internet magazine Inspire, which he oversaw along with another American, Samir Khan, has continued to spread not just militant rhetoric but also practical instructions on shooting and bomb-making.

In effect, Mr. Awlaki has become a leading brand name in the world of armed jihad. He operated mainly in English, the language of global commerce, and has helped attract a diverse group of volunteers. The four attacks were carried out by a Nigerian banker’s son, a British college student, two Chechen immigrants to Massachusetts and two Frenchmen of Algerian background. His pronouncements continue to provide a supposed religious rationale for thuggish acts vehemently denounced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Islamic authorities.

Mr. Awlaki also became the face in the West of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or A.Q.A.P., as it is widely known. Against the odds, the group, which was formally created in early 2009 by Yemeni and Saudi militants, has supplanted Al Qaeda’s old core in Pakistan as the terrorist organization most feared by the United States and now, perhaps, by Europe as well.

Since it split with Al Qaeda a year ago, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has seized the international spotlight, first with territorial gains and more recently with beheadings of journalists and other hostages. But if A.Q.A.P. was behind the machine-gunning in Paris of cartoonists and editors at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, then Al Qaeda may have regained the publicity advantage in its rancorous rivalry with its offshoot.

The evidence that Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch, and the late Mr. Awlaki, had a role in preparations for the Paris assault has accumulated steadily since Wednesday’s shootings. The two gunmen, identified by the French police as the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, seemed determined to attach the A.Q.A.P.-Awlaki label to their shooting spree.

An eyewitness heard the brothers yell to passers-by at the shooting scene to “tell the media that this is Al Qaeda in Yemen.” They reportedly told the driver of a car they hijacked that their attack was in revenge for Mr. Awlaki’s death.

Intelligence officials and eyewitnesses said the older brother, Saïd Kouachi, 34, had spent time in Yemen between 2009 and 2012, getting firearms training from the Qaeda branch and, according to some reports, meeting with Mr. Awlaki. According to a Yemeni journalist, Mohamed al-Kibsi, Saïd Kouachi roomed briefly in the Yemeni capital, Sana, with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear. Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is now serving a life sentence in federal prison, told the F.B.I. that his plot was approved and partly directed by Mr. Awlaki.

And Chérif Kouachi, 32, in a brief telephone interview with a French television reporter before he was killed with his brother on Friday, firmly associated the attack with A.Q.A.P. and its former propagandist.

“I, Chérif Kouachi, was sent by Al Qaeda in Yemen,” the younger Mr. Kouachi said in audio later broadcast by the BFMTV channel in France. “I went there, and it was Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki who financed me.” François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said at a news conference later that day that Chérif Kouachi had visited Yemen in 2011.

Also on Friday, a member of A.Q.A.P.’s “media committee” sent journalists a statement explicitly claiming responsibility for the brothers’ attack. “The leadership of A.Q.A.P. directed the operation, and they have chosen their target carefully as revenge for the honor of the prophet,” the statement said. Another A.Q.A.P. leader who regular speaks for the organization, Harith al-Nadari, issued an audio statement praising the attack, though he did not claim explicitly that the group was behind it.

None of the statements explained why the brothers had allowed nearly three years to pass after their return from Yemen before they attacked the newspaper.

“Awlaki’s name still pops up pretty often in cases of Western radicals, but given the amount of time since his death, it is unusual to see a case where the suspects actually met him,” said J. M. Berger, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s project on American relations with the Islamic world who has studied Mr. Awlaki. “It reflects the long lead time on this plot. We may never know if this attack was formulated back then, or if the targets or particulars changed over time.”

American Origins

Mr. Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971 while his Yemeni father was a graduate student, went with his family to Yemen at the age of 7 and returned to the United States at 19 to study engineering at Colorado State University. He discovered a knack for preaching and spent eight years as a highly successful imam at mosques in Denver, San Diego and Washington, where he preached at the Capitol and was a luncheon speaker at the Pentagon.

He came under F.B.I. scrutiny briefly in 1999 for contacts with known militants, and again in 2002 when agents discovered that three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had worshiped in his mosques. The national Sept. 11 commission raised the possibility that Mr. Awlaki was part of a support network for the hijackers, but the F.B.I. concluded that he had no prior knowledge of the plot.

In 2002, Mr. Awlaki moved to London, where he became a popular speaker and flirted more openly with militancy. After moving to Yemen in 2004, he began to espouse violent jihad against the United States and other countries he labeled enemies of Islam.

By 2009, when Mr. Awlaki was linked to Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a shooting at Fort Hood, Tex., the F.B.I., as well as the authorities in Canada and Britain, found that the cleric’s calls for violence were turning up on the laptops of nearly everyone they charged with plotting jihadist attacks. His website and Facebook page had attracted a large following across the English-speaking world, and scores of foreigners traveled to Yemen to meet him.

“Awlaki was a huge magnet,” said Morten Storm, a Danish man who visited the cleric in Yemen, first as a convinced militant, and later, after growing disillusioned with Islam, as an agent of Danish, British and American intelligence agencies. Mr. Storm said the leader of A.Q.A.P., Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden who now is the second-ranking figure in the global Qaeda network, remained a revered figure among jihadists.

“If you want old-school Al Qaeda, the place to go is still Yemen,” Mr. Storm said in a telephone interview.

In the case of Major Hasan, who asked his views on the religious justification for killing American soldiers, Mr. Awlaki declined to answer directly, sending two noncommittal replies. But by late 2009, the cleric had joined A.Q.A.P. and was helping to prepare Mr. Abdulmutallab for his airliner attack.

‘Operational’ Terrorist

After the underwear bomb fizzled, President Obama, judging that the cleric was now an “operational” terrorist, sought and received a Justice Department legal opinion declaring that killing him without a trial, despite his American citizenship, would violate neither the law nor the Constitution. During a 17-month manhunt, Mr. Awlaki called for the murder of cartoonists who insulted the Prophet Muhammad and helped A.Q.A.P. send bombs in printer cartridges to the United States on cargo planes; a Saudi tip foiled the plan. But the cleric’s followers kept getting arrested, including Roshonara Choudhry, who said, after listening to more than 100 hours of Mr. Awlaki’s lectures, that she had stabbed a member of Parliament who had voted in favor of the Iraq war.

The drone strike that killed Mr. Awlaki also killed Samir Khan and two other Qaeda operatives, and two weeks later, another American strike killed Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, infuriating many Yemenis. Obama administration officials have said the son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, was not the intended target of the strike.

By then, in the fall of 2011, chaos in the wake of the ouster of Yemen’s longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had allowed Al Qaeda to seize large swaths of territory in the country’s south. In 2012, Yemeni forces, and American drones strikes, drove A.Q.A.P. out of the towns it had captured.

But in recent months, as a Shiite militia known as the Houthis seized power in Sana and elsewhere across Yemen, A.Q.A.P. has gained strength by rallying Sunni tribesmen against the Houthis. The growing violence, including numerous A.Q.A.P. bombings, underscores the failure of Yemeni and American efforts, including the drone campaign, to dismantle the group.

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