How Dangerous Is the Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki?

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Illustration for TIME by John Ritter (Source photos: AP, Getty)

Anwar al-Awlaki

Pity poor Yemen. Three armed conflicts are being fought in the nation that hugs the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula: there is a separatist insurgency in the south and a fight between the mostly Sunni government forces and Shi'ite rebels in the north, while in the east, home of Osama bin Laden's ancestors, the local affiliate of his network is plotting to undermine the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

So the average resident of Sana'a, Yemen's ancient capital, can be forgiven for regarding Anwar al-Awlaki as just another warmongering imam with a grudge against the West and a deep hatred for the U.S. In fact, until last fall, most Yemenis had never heard of the American-born cleric living in their midst. Those most familiar with him were a small group of Western counterterrorism officials and experts — and even they thought al-Awlaki was of relatively little consequence.

Not anymore they don't. In the past two months, al-Awlaki's anonymity has been replaced by the glare of U.S. government and media attention — and very likely the searching eyes of spy satellites. His connection to both the Nov. 5 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, and the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a passenger jet over Detroit has persuaded the Obama Administration that al-Awlaki is a big-time bad guy. On Jan. 4, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, told CNN, "Al-Awlaki is a problem ... He's not just a cleric. He is in fact trying to instigate terrorism."

The Administration is trying to be careful in its assessment of al-Awlaki. Officials recognize that in demonizing a jihadist, they may create a monster they cannot control as the U.S. seemingly did in 2003 when it identified Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi as the top al-Qaeda leader in Iraq at a time when he was little more than a relatively obscure Jordanian terrorist operating north of Baghdad. The notoriety was a bonanza for al-Zarqawi, as mujahedin streamed to join his group. As for al-Awlaki, "the best way to describe him is inspirational rather than operational," says a senior U.S. official. But, as this official points out, "the inspirational element is motivating people to take action. Where do you draw the line?"

Wherever the line between inspiration and operation is drawn, al-Awlaki seems to have come very close to crossing it. White House officials say e-mail exchanges with al-Awlaki may have spurred Major Nidal Malik Hasan to go on a rampage in Fort Hood, killing 13 people. And Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber, reportedly told the FBI he had met with al-Awlaki in Yemen. Moreover, research into al-Awlaki's past has now revealed that he had been investigated by the FBI for his connections to al-Qaeda as long ago as 1999. He had met three of the 9/11 hijackers, and his sermons and speeches had turned up in the computers of the 2005 London bombers, terrorist plotters in Toronto in 2006 and the six men who planned an attack on Fort Dix, N.J., in 2007.

Put all that together, and it explains why, even before the Christmas Day incident, al-Awlaki was of such interest to the U.S. government that it tried to kill him. On Dec. 24, the Yemeni military, pressed by the CIA, fired rockets into his home south of Sana'a. Al-Awlaki was not the principal target — the top leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was thought to be meeting there — but U.S. officials were hoping the strike would also take out the cleric. He wasn't home.

Made in the U.S.A.
So who is this man whom U.S. counterterrorism officials would like to see dead? Just like bin Laden, al-Awlaki comes from an influential family: one of his relatives is Prime Minister of Yemen, and his father Nasser al-Awlaki was Agriculture Minister and head of the country's biggest university. Like bin Laden, al-Awlaki is soft-spoken, mild-mannered and austere.

The parallels end there. Although bin Laden saw plenty of Western culture in his youth, he seems to have been profoundly uncomfortable with it. Not so al-Awlaki. Now 38, he has lived in the West for more than half his life, speaks fluent English and peppers his sermons with references to Western places and people. A recent lecture on death, for instance, was informed by an old Michael Jackson interview in which the singer said he wanted to "live forever." Hard to imagine bin Laden referring to the King of Pop in a sermon.

Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, N.M., where his father was studying for a master's degree at New Mexico State University. The family spent nearly a decade on American campuses. Anwar was 7 when they returned to Yemen, where they lived in a newish Sana'a neighborhood.

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