Anwar al-Awlaki was a Yemeni-American preacher, and imam. U.S. government officials allege that, in his position as a senior recruiter and motivator, he was centrally involved in planning terrorist operations for the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda, and he became the first United States citizen to be assassinated by a U.S. drone strike without the rights of due process being afforded. President Barack Obama ordered the strike.
As imam at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia (2001–02), al-Awlaki spoke with and preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers, who were al-Qaeda members. In 2001, he presided at the funeral of the mother of Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who later e-mailed him extensively in 2008–09 before carrying out the Fort Hood shootings. During al-Awlaki’s later radical period after 2006–07, when he went into hiding, he may have associated with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted the 2009 Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner. Al-Awlaki was allegedly involved in planning Abdulmutallab’s attack.
The Yemeni government tried him in absentia in November 2010, for plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of al-Qaeda. A Yemeni judge ordered that he be captured “dead or alive”. Some U.S. officials said that in 2009, al-Awlaki was promoted to the rank of “regional commander” within al-Qaeda. Others felt that Nasir al-Wuhayshi still held this rank and that al-Awlaki was an influential member in the group. He repeatedly called for jihad against the United States.
While imprisoned in Yemen after 2004, al-Awlaki was influenced by the works of Sayyid Qutb, described by The New York Times as an originator of the contemporary “anti-Western Jihadist movement”. He read 150 to 200 pages a day of Qutb’s works, and described himself as “so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly”.
Terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann in 2009 referred to al-Awlaki as “one of the principal jihadi luminaries for would-be homegrown terrorists. His fluency with English, his unabashed advocacy of jihad and mujahideen organizations, and his Web-savvy approach are a powerful combination.” He called al-Awlaki’s lecture, “Constants on the Path of Jihad“, which he says was based on a similar document written by al-Qaeda’s founder, the “virtual bible for lone-wolf Muslim extremists”. Philip Mudd, formerly of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Centre and the FBI’s top intelligence adviser, called him “a magnetic character … a powerful orator.” He attracted young men to his lectures, especially US-based and UK-based Muslims.
US officials and some US media sources called al-Awlaki an Islamic fundamentalist and accused him of encouraging terrorism. According to documents recovered from bin Laden’s hideout, the al-Qaeda leader was unsure about al-Awlaki’s qualifications.
On May 5, 2011, the US tried but failed to kill al-Awlaki by firing a missile from an unmanned drone at a car in Yemen. A Yemeni security official said that two al-Qaeda operatives in the car died.