16 November 2009

Anwar al Awlaki: A “Confidant” for Nidal Hasan?

I know we’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to the case of Nidal Hasan, but I continue to be fascinated and alarmed by the events and people that contributed to what Bruce Hoffman described as Hasan’s “self radicalization” (see full article in the NY Times here).

Today’s Washington Post offers some insightful excerpts from the first interview with Anwar al Awlaki since Hasan’s shooting spree at Ft. Hood (see full article here). Recent investigations have revealed that Nidal Hasan had semi-regular e-mail contact with Awlaki prior to the attacks and even attended several of his sermons at the Dar al Hijra mosque in N. Virginia. In the interview, Awlaki explains that, “he thought he played a role in transforming Hasan into a devout Muslim eight years ago,” and “that Hasan ‘trusted’ him and that the two developed an e-mail correspondence over the past year.” While it is possible that Awlaki is attempting to gain some fame (or infamy) for himself and overplay their relationship, I think it’s more likely that Hasan considered Awlaki to be a legitimate religious authority and looked to him for guidance and even inspiration. In multiple audio recording and blog posts, Awlaki encouraged attacks on US and other “infidel” armies (see an example here from NEFA). It’s no coincidence that his recordings were also found at the homes of several of the Fort Dix attack plotters.

Additionally, after the attack at Ft. Hood, Awlaki almost immediately posted a response on his blog calling Hasan a “hero” (see full transcript of Awlaki’s blog post here). For years, CT experts across the government have tracked Awlaki, stating in a report in 2008 that he was an “example of al-Qaeda reach into” the United States. In 2006, Awlaki left the US for Yemen, where he was then detained (reportedly at the behest of US forces) in 2007 and subsequently released. Since then, he has leveraged the Internet to distribute writings, audiotapes, and videos (all in English) to inspire jihad. For additional background on Anwar al Awlaki, see this in-depth biography and background on the NEFA Foundation site here.

The case of Anwar al Awlaki presents significant challenges and dilemmas for US intelligence and law enforcement authorities. While we can fairly easily track Awlaki and others like him through their writings and websites, how can we place effects on them (both lethal and non-lethal) when they reside in ungoverned spaces like Southern Yemen – which is quickly being reinforced as an AQ safe haven? How can we determine who Awlaki is engaging with in terms of both legitimate al Qaeda leadership as well as potential “self-radicalized” lone wolf types? In the specific case of Nidal Hasan, intelligence officials were aware of the contact between Hasan and Awlaki, but assessed that this did not pose a threat; how can we improve our analytical processes and include additional factors when analyzing situations like this? Clearly there are major legal and privacy aspects to this discussion, but it’s one we must have in order to prevent events like this from happening again.


  1. Pat, thanks for the insights. You may want to peruse this NY Times article from 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/weekinreview/14imam.html. It highlights the progressive behavior of "radical Muslim preachers" in public squares throughout Europe, especially after the London bombing, and the measures taken - at least in part - by leaders there.

    Your questions, as you know, have legal implications along with human rights concerns. I argue that it is perhaps more culturally dictated than legally encouraged. The Bill of Rights states that we cannot prohibit free speech; it does not positively state what type of speech is acceptable or which is unacceptable.

    For example, President Obama stated this past weekend in China that an "uncensored society is a healthy society." We know what he means by this - that the bottom line is more free speech in China than they have now is better than what they have now - but my point is that this singular statement can be interpreted to any end, either legally or through a human rights lens.

    This, in terms of terrorism-talk, may hurt us because we cannot "measure" the speech and its potential or actual impact(s); rather, it is left to interpretation. What say you?

  2. Excellent post, and you have asked the million dollar question. How do you counter something like free will, inspiring maniacs like Hasan?
    One way would be to shut down the internet.....I know, that is ridiculous and that will never happen.
    Or the other way is to implement information engagement operations. If you can't stop it, then at least do what you can to compete with it or to even smother it with a better idea and better content.
    That means taking moderate muslims, who do not believe in these ideas that the radicals have promoted, and counter those ideas with better ideas. That takes work on the forums, and it takes work with blogs.
    Someone needs to guage how many radicals there are, who are really pushing the agendas on the jihadi forums, and provide the counter to these radicals with a voice of reason. Once the problem has been measured and assessed, then we help invigorate the counter measures.
    Blogging workshops that teach moderates specifically on how to be successful and even make money off of their efforts. Forum workshops that teach individuals how to work a crowd on those forums. Facebook and Twitter engagement teams could be used to really fire up the counter to the jihadist movements. But it all takes work, and it all takes really thinking outside of the box. New media information warfare is the way to go, along with sound law enforcement and counter-terrorism methods.
    Another way we can counter the Hasans or super empowered individuals, is to promote super empowered individuals that are armed with the tools to identify the Hasans out there. The little grandma in Dearborn Michigan, could be a super empowered individual, armed with the tools necessary to identify the key traits of a Hasan type. In this war, we should be using all of the citizens of the world to help fight terrorism, and I really haven't seen an effort to tap into the citizens of the world and empower them so they can help stop this kind of thing.
    Ideologically speaking, our enemy has strength, because they are able to do horrofic things in the name of their religion. What is our strength to counter this? Is it money, religion, fear, what? Perhaps we need to find a source of strength, or strenghths to counter this? Or I guess another question, is what idea do we have, that people are willing to die in the name of? Is it family, country, god? That is something that needs to be identified and thought about, because I certainly know our enemy has.