Image by Muhammad ud-Deen
The attacks of September 11th, 2001 reshaped the world by introducing a new brand of terrorism: global jihad. And there is one man in particular whose post-9/11 career has promulgated the validity of holy war among western Muslims. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Salafi preacher of Yemeni parentage, has influenced an entire generation of jihadists in the west: combining modern technology with reactionary ideas in multitudes of popular lectures and videos, to encourage young western Muslims to join jihadist groups abroad or commit attacks in their home countries.
From 2009 until his death by drone in 2011, Awlaki was a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an influential propagandist and strategist. His promotion of a new jihadist strategy has caused ongoing misery. Instead of large-scale spectacular attacks such as 9/11, Awlaki saw small-scale, decentralised, low-tech attacks as the future of holy war.
Through his translations and adaptations of both medieval and modern books of jihadist theology, online videos, audio recordings, his blog and the magazine he founded for AQAP, Awlaki convinced many young English-speaking Muslims to take up arms (or vans) against their fellow citizens. He played a direct or indirect role in several infamous jihadist attacks, including Nidal Hasan’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
These relatively small-scale attacks were premised on the wide dissemination of the ideology of jihadist violence, which can survive the waxing and waning of particular terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and does not require much operational oversight from hierarchical groups. Awlaki’s death hasn’t put an end to his career: his writings and lectures are still shared online by jihadists and the Islamic State (IS) has cited his work several times. Indeed, IS uses his words in one of the very first videos in its series “Establishment of the Islamic State.”
Al-Awlaki’s preferred strategy was opposed by Osama bin Laden and more traditional jihadists but has been taken up and refined by IS to deadly effect. Meanwhile, Awlaki’s preachings are still cited by attackers and memes with quotations from his work abound online. As his disciple Zachary Adam Chesser puts it: “the jihad movement has moved from the mountains and caves to the bedrooms of every major city around the world.”
The Jihad Counterculture
The foregoing information can be found in Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’ soon-to-be-released début book, Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad. Meleagrou-Hitchens, a lecturer at King’s College London and Research Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, has written a fascinating analysis of the career of this most dangerously charismatic of fanatics. The author applies several theoretical models, the most prominent of which is social movement theory (SMT): “a set of theories that attempt to explain how and why people and groups become involved in various forms of collective action, or what is often termed as contentious politics.”
The SMT tools Meleagrou-Hitchens relies on are the theory of framing and the construction of a collective identity. Diagnostic frames point out problems, prognostic frames offer solutions and motivational frames are designed to inspire action. Frame alignment involves updating the frames to accord with the experiences of the target audience, while the creation of a collective identity involves dividing the world into an in-group and an out-group and identifying the lines that separate them. SMT is not enough on its own, however, for it ignores the emotional aspect of jihad, which Meleagrou-Hitchens factors into his analysis.
Anwar al-Awlaki used each of these tools to great effect, and Meleagrou-Hitchens delineates the ways in which he did so. By translating theological tracts on jihad and relating the heroic exploits of Muhammad and his companions, Awlaki encouraged his audience to identify with a jihadist conception of Islam and the world, while providing stirring exemplars of action in defence of the faith. Awlaki described a conspiracy, a war on Islam, evidenced, he said, by western actions after 9/11 and not limited to political and military issues. He proposed violent jihad as a solution, to save the global Muslim community or ummah.
According to Awlaki, the collective identity of this group was under threat, both at home and abroad (witness the blasphemous Danish cartoons and the invasion of Iraq): everyone in the west hated Islam and Muslims and wanted to destroy them. This provided ample motivation to prove oneself a true Muslim—which could only be done through violent jihad. Awlaki mixed allusions to epic tales, current events and theology to lend his message legitimacy, urgency and emotional strength and cleverly allowed the listener or reader to come to his own conclusions without explicitly telling him what to do.
Another ingredient in this mixture was the respect and authority Awlaki was perceived to have. He was a mainstream Salafi imam in America and the UK before he moved to Yemen and embraced violent jihadism. He had a wide audience during this first phase of his career and was popular with American and British Islamic institutions—the Muslim Association of Britain sent him on a tour of the nation in 2003. This pre-existing authority meant that Awlaki was perceived as a legitimate religious scholar (though in reality some of his credentials were doubtful) rather than a fringe lunatic. This widened his appeal.
One of the most interesting things that Meleagrou-Hitchens points out is that, contra some analyses, it is unlikely that Awlaki underwent any process of radicalisation in his underlying ideology during his career. The ideas he espoused as a mainstream Salafi were nearly identical to those he promulgated as a jihadist.
Salafi Islam is purist and fundamentalist, but most strands are not violent. Awlaki’s underlying ideas already contained a mixture of Salafi activism, jihadist leanings and Islamism: distinct strands of Islam, as we are reminded by Meleagrou-Hitchens. It was mainly Awlaki’s views on the solution to Islam’s ills and on how to achieve the promised caliphate that changed as tensions increased after 9/11.
Awlaki invokes several Islamic concepts in his work, one of the most important of which is al-wala wal-bara, which refers to the proper ways of loving and hating for Allah and Islam, and the distinction between loyalty and disloyalty to the faith, which Salafi jihadists interpret very strictly. This was a useful weapon in Awlaki’s arsenal, enabling him to stoke divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims and to demonise and dehumanise the latter.
Then there is the concept of hijrah, meaning flight or departure, in reference to the Prophet’s relocation to Medina after his persecution by the Meccan pagans. For jihadists, hijrah means leaving infidel territory to come and join the true believers and fight the holy war with them. The influence of this concept on the thousands of westerners who emigrated to join Islamic State should be apparent. The related idea of al-taifa al-mansura, roughly “the victorious group,” refers to the Muslims who are guaranteed entry to paradise—specifically jihadists, in violent Salafist thought.
Meleagrou-Hitchens considers three jihadists influenced by the preacher: the (failed) underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nidal Hasan and Zachary Adam Chesser. The three cases have important differences and similarities. One interesting difference is in the level of contact the men had with al-Qaeda and Awlaki. Abdulmutallab, inspired by Awlaki’s work, eventually travelled to Yemen and worked with him, and the imam directly oversaw his planned, but thankfully unsuccessful, attempt to bring down an aeroplane over American soil.
By contrast, Hasan and Chesser had only limited contact with jihadist leaders and organisations. Hasan received some brisk replies after emailing Awlaki, and Chesser also had some contact with him, but they both acted on their own initiatives, after online or in-person research and discussions with people of a similar outlook. Hasan, a member of the American military, shot dead several of his comrades, while Chesser, seemingly a self-starter, began a propaganda campaign from his computer to spread the jihadist message before being arrested after a change of heart while planning to join al-Shabaab in Somalia.
These cases demonstrate the diversity of current jihadist methods. But the similarities are telling, too. Each man found Awlaki at a moment of personal vulnerability and each was concerned with the religious legitimacy of the path he was taking—a legitimacy Awlaki provided. Each started by questioning his identity or place in the world and taking an interest in global events, and each found a simplistic and charismatically presented answer in Awlaki’s work. Meleagrou-Hitchens argues that jihad has become a malignant counterculture in the west. As Awlaki memorably put it: “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.” This delicious soundbite hands us hacks a salacious headline- and shows Awlaki’s competence as a publicist.
Meleagrou-Hitchens concludes by looking at Awlaki’s significant influence on Islamic State, as I discuss above. I’d add that Awlaki and AQAP referred to their small-scale strategy by the simultaneously terrifying and banally bureaucratic term “open-source jihad.” IS prefers to call such attacks acts of “just terror.”
An Essential Analysis
Meleagrou-Hitchens has provided an essential analysis of the career of one of jihad’s most successful devotees and enlightened us as to the broader nature of Islamic holy war. The book is thorough in its research. Indeed, Meleagrou-Hitchens has personally interviewed former associates of Awlaki in order to understand the man and his odious, yet fascinating, ideology. If you want to understand the nature of Islamic terrorism and its evolution, look no further. With great clarity and insight, Meleagrou-Hitchens has provided many answers as well as many points for further reflection on this important subject.
He has shown us that jihad is here to stay, thanks in large part to Anwar al-Awlaki; despite the territorial defeat of Islamic State and the assassination of its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Awlaki’s strategy and propaganda are still in use: “Like the efforts of those who came before him, his work will live on and continue to influence the direction of the global jihad movement in the West for years to come.”
We can expect more attacks on the streets of the west and throughout the Middle East, and if we want to combat the ideology that leads to such violence, we must understand it. Incitement will be central to that understanding.
One of the themes of the book is the link between bad ideas and violent actions. Elsewhere, we are often told that people do not really believe the absurdities of religion. This is easy enough for a secular westerner to say, but it is deeply wrong, ignoring as it does the reality of fervent religious belief. Such fanatical faith must be cut off at the root if we are to prevent the actions that all too often follow from it.
Diagnostics, Prognostics and Motivations
It is of supreme importance that we continue to voice unflinching critique of religious absolutism and provide a robust defence of pluralism and civilisation. Many of the primary victims of jihadism are Muslims deemed impure in their devotion; it is to secular, liberal and former Muslims and to secular critics in general that we must turn, if we are to fight the totalitarian theocratic enemy.
It is at your own peril that you misunderstand the nature of this enemy. Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabaab and the rest are not anti-imperialists, whatever their propaganda claims—they are fighting for an empire of their own. The reasons such groups cite for their actions are mostly religious in inspiration. As ever, the problem is faith, theology and certainty: in the absence of an objective path to truth, conflicts between the multiplicity of religious interpretations cannot be resolved one way or the other, and the jihadist can derive as much theological legitimacy as the moderate. It is better to criticise and challenge religion and promote a free and open society than to bow before religious sensibilities of any shade.
The battle of ideas, on which the jihadists are so keen, must be won. Fortunately, people in Iran, Iraq and Morocco have been challenging the moribund regimes that rule over them on a democratic and secular basis. There is good reason to hope that they are inching ever closer to victory.
But we must also remain militant. As I’ve argued elsewhere in this magazine, the War on Terror was and is justified. Though conventional military action is limited in its effects, especially against the Awlakian school of jihad, it is still necessary to fight the violent organisations that seek to impose theocracy on the people of the Muslim, if not the whole, world.
After all, IS facilitators often direct lone-actor attacks, and recruitment to the caliphate has drastically fallen since its territorial defeat. Such organisations harbour the propagandists and strategists who inspire lone-actor attacks. A combination of military might and rational critique is needed to rid the world of theo-fascistic violence. We need to challenge bad ideas at a fundamental level and in a scathing way.
We would do well to remember the uniqueness of this threat. Jihadist aims are entirely opposed to every ideal of civilisation and progress and to the free and good life—indeed to life itself. I do not think negotiation with the jihadists is possible and it certainly isn’t desirable. What common ground can there be between humanism and apocalyptic fascism?
And we must also tell stories superior in truth and beauty to those of the propagandists and devotees of holy war. If Awlaki and his cohorts can whip up emotion, then so can I and so can all the enemies of absolutist fascism—and our emotions are tempered by reason and morality.
So, let us tell stories of the amazing discoveries of science, of the revelations of history, literature and philosophy, of the benefits of democracy, secularism and freedom. Those stories are far more sublime than the sadistic tales biliously emitted from the putrid mouths of crazed fanatics. Our stories are beautiful and emotionally fulfilling in themselves and appeal to nobler sentiments on sounder premises—and with far less bloody consequences.
[…] Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (2020). I reviewed this for Areo, too; it’s a scholarly but limpid account of the career and influence of one of the most important […]
“It is better to criticise and challenge religion and promote a free and open society than to bow before religious sensibilities of any shade.”
ALL religions? Christianity? Judaism? Buddhism? Mr. Sharp should beware of tarring all religions with the same brush lest he and all atheists be lumped together with Mao and Stalin and Hitler and the other athesists who murdered over a hundred million people in the last century alone.
[…] I’ve not posted on this site about some of my most recent articles; instead I’ve just been sharing them on social media. Time to remedy that. My latest is a review for Areo of Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’s forthcoming book on Anwar al-Awlaki. Read it here. […]