Analysis: Anwar Awlaki’s message to Inspire readers


The second edition of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine makes multiple references to the controversy over the Obama administration’s decision to allow US forces to target al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen.

Awlaki is perhaps the most notorious member of AQAP. His sermons have garnered a wide audience on the web because of his fluency in English. US counterterrorism officials have directly implicated Awlaki in recent terror plots, including Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.

Civil liberties organizations, including the ACLU, have objected to the Obama administration’s decision on the grounds that he is an American citizen and therefore deserves due process. In Inspire, AQAP highlights these protests.

The caption to one photo of Awlaki reads: “Rights Groups in America are challenging the United States Government in Court over placing U.S. Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on its hit list. They say it’s illegal without judicial oversight.”

Another entry in the online magazine reads: “Not a single shred of evidence has been produced to incriminate Imam Anwar al-Awlaki; so why has the US Government put him on their hit list?”

Ironically, Inspire itself provides evidence of Awlaki’s ties to al Qaeda. The second and most recent edition of the publication includes two items written by Awlaki – who has not even tried to hide his ties to terrorists such as Major Nidal Malik Hassan (who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009) or Abdulmutallab. In one online video, Awlaki calls both men his “students.”

Both of the pieces in Inspire by Awlaki are intended to help recruit more jihadists like Hassan and Abdulmutallab in the West. The first is a lengthy argument justifying jihad waged by individuals and is discussed more fully below.

The second is not new, as it was republished from one of Awlaki’s earlier works distributed via compact disc and in audio clips on the web. It is also unremarkable, as it draws on a common jihadist theme: This life is worthless as compared to the afterlife. For these reasons, a discussion of Awlaki’s second piece in Inspire (“The Prize awaiting the shahid” ) is not included here.

Awlaki’s response to The New Mardin Declaration

In March, a group of Muslim scholars gathered at Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey to reexamine a fatwa issued by Ibn Taymmiyah in the fourteenth century. Taymmiyah’s fatwa addressed whether or not Mardin, which was then ruled by Mongols who had converted to Islam, was properly categorized as being a part of Dar al Islam (House of Islam) or Dar al Harb (House of War). The distinction between the two abodes is a linchpin of jihadist thought, which requires the supposed true believers to wage war on the inhabitants of Dar al Harb until they are subjugated. Taymmiyah decided that Mardin was properly categorized as belonging to Dar al Harb because its rulers did not govern according to sharia law.

Taymmiyah’s fatwa on Mardin has been cited by jihadists repeatedly in the centuries since. The Muslim theologians who met in Turkey earlier this year argued against a classification system that divides the world into two abodes. And, they argued, Taymmiyyah’s fatwa was a product of his time that is not enshrined as Islamic law.

“Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts,” the scholars wrote. [See here for a pdf of “The New Mardin Declaration.”]

This drew Awlaki’s ire. In a response (“The New Mardin Declaration: An Attempt at Justifying the New World Order” ) penned in April, but not published until the latest edition of Inspire (AQAP blamed “technical difficulties” for the delay), Awlaki says the scholars’ words were “more a language of a combination of lawyers and peace activists” than Islamic jurisprudence.

Awlaki blasts the declaration as representing a “benign version of Islam that is friendly towards the power holders of the day and stands against the changing of the status quo.”

Awlaki also scoffs at the declaration’s condemnation of “all forms of violent attempts-to-change or violent protest, within, or outside, Muslim societies.” Awlaki claims:

This might be the way of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but it is not the way of Muhammad (peace be upon him) who said: “I was sent with the sword before the Day of Judgment.”

The Mardin scholars argued that Muslims can live in a state of “tolerance and peaceful coexistence between all religions” as the rise of “civil states,” which guarantee basic rights, has done away with the two abodes framework espoused by Ibn Taymmiyyah. Awlaki replies to this by saying: “Islam can never recognize and live in peaceful co-existence with worshiping (sic) a cow or an idol.”

The al Qaeda cleric continues: “I challenge these scholars to point out to me one – just one – Prophet of Allah who lived in peaceful coexistence with the disbelievers?” Answering his own question, Awlaki went on:

Not one of them lived without a conflict with the disbelievers that ended up with a total and final separation between the two camps: a camp of belief and a camp of kufr (disbelief). The disbelievers were then destroyed either through a calamity or by the hands of the believers.

Awlaki sees the West as being completely incompatible with the Muslim world. Awlaki argues:

At a time when American expenditure on its army is anything but decreasing, these scholars are asking us to give up any form of resistance and live as law – Western law that is – abiding citizens.

Much of Awlaki’s and Inspire’s message is focused on recruiting of individual jihadists in the West. In this vein, the second edition of Inspire (as with the first) republishes excerpts of Abu Musab al Suri’s works. Prior to his capture in Pakistan, al Suri (whose real name is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar) was a top al Qaeda theoretician and a prominent advocate of waging individual jihad, with willing recruits becoming self-actualized. In al Suri’s view, if new jihadists do not have any direct connection to the central leadership of the terror network, then it would be much more difficult for Western governments to detect them.

AQAP has built on al Suri’s work and seeks to garner both new recruits with no direct connection to the organization, as well as those who require AQAP’s assistance. (Major Hassan received, at a minimum, spiritual guidance from Awlaki via email. And Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen for training in an AQAP camp.)

The Mardin declaration represents a threat to Awlaki’s and AQAP’s approach because its authors argue that combative jihad can only be waged under the explicit direction of state authorities. The Mardin declaration reads: “The validation, authorization, and execution of this particular type of jihad is granted by the Shari’ah to only those who lead the community (actual heads of states).”

This approach would, of course, neutralize the calls for violent jihad issued by Awlaki and like-minded clerics, thereby lessening their pool of potential recruits. Thus, Awlaki responds:

There is no explicit evidence that the permission of the Imam is needed for jihad. But the scholars deducted such a requirement from other evidence and because jihad is an act of worship with critical and encompassing consequences.

Al Qaeda typically tries to portray its violence as a justifiable response (defensive jihad) to the supposed sins of the West and, in particular, American foreign policies. Awlaki takes this approach too. But he goes a step further, arguing that offensive jihad is also justified, as pagans and infidels are rightly vanquished. Awlaki writes:

The first Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) fought against the apostates and against the two superpowers of his time, the Roman and Persian Empires. The war against the apostates was to reestablish the acceptance and submission of the tribes of Arabia to the law of Allah.  The wars with the Persian and Roman Empires were unprovoked and were for the prime purpose of spreading the truth to humanity.

Awlaki continues:

Regarding their statement: “It is not legitimate to declare war because of differences in religion, or in search of spoils of war.” This statement is false. The pagans of Arabia were fought because they were pagans, the Persians were fought because they were Zoroastrians and the Romans were fought because they were Christian. The great Muslim Sultan Mahmud Sabaktakeen fought against the Hindus because they were Hindus and he personally led his army in a risky campaign deep into the land of India with the sole objective of destroying the most revered idol in all of India. He was fighting because of this “difference of religion” our esteemed scholars of Mardin are discounting.

In other words, in Awlaki’s view, the jihadists must fight all those who differ in their beliefs.

What is particularly interesting about this line of argument (which is commonly made in al Qaeda’s messages to Muslims, but not to the West) is that it contradicts a misconception about Awlaki. It is commonly argued that Awlaki was radicalized only because of American foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11. That is not true, as a matter of fact. His ties to the terror network before 9/11 were many. Moreover, Awlaki uses Inspire to make it abundantly clear that his ideology requires him to oppose all others on religious grounds that have nothing to do with this or that policy.

And he seeks new recruits in the West to carry out AQAP’s next round of attacks.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • yz says:

    That’s cool, if it’s a fight he want than it’s a fight he got.

  • mick says:

    I think Awlaki has changed a lot since having to go underground. His views have changed and I think his current surroundings must have influenced him. I do believe Awlaki’s prime reason for change and jihad was American foreign policy, and I believe these new ideas of offensive jihad on the basis that the enemies are simply infidels is something new in him. This is not the same Awlaki of the past.

  • James says:

    The Fourteenth Amendment states (in relevant part) that:
    “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
    Does anyone get the gist of the phrase “SUBJECT TO THE JURISDICTION THEREOF” and “of the State wherein they reside.”
    My point is that when he left the US for Yemen he no longer was “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” nor of the State wherein he resided.
    In other words, it should be quite crystal clear that in order for the above to apply you would have to be IN the United States (or, within its jurisdiction).
    I don’t see how any one can argue that Awlaki is entitled to any thing near the above rights, considering that he is now within the jurisdiction of Yemen (not the US).
    Another good question is: If people are so worried about whether he’s entitled to any US constitutional rights, why not just try him, in absentia. on treason charges.
    He has made plenty of statements in public to support such charges.
    I believe this guy Awlaki is a master of manipulation, deception, and propaganda. We Americans had better get a clue of the severity of the threat this guy poses. Bin Laden has his hands full worried about his own hide, this guy doesn’t.
    Awlaki voluntarily relinquished any rights he arguably may have had when he voluntarily left the United States and decided to declare war against the US (albeit in “couched” terminology).

  • Mr T says:

    Perhaps the ladies on “The View” should read this.
    The enemy keeps telling us that they will fight us until we submit. We still have difficulty accepting them at their word. Of course, the word of a murdering terrorist doesn’t really carry much weight.


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