.
I

n this pandemic environment, it is oddly appropriate to be reading about something else that can go viral—ideas, in this case, Salafi-Jihadist ideas. Similar to how implemented quarantine measures won’t completely eliminate COVID-19, there is little expectation that anything can be done to fully stop these Salafi-Jihadist ideas from continuing to spread.

Book Review: Incitement—Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (Cover Image by Harvard University Press).

While the United States waged the Global War on Terror, allies such as the United Kingdom and Jordan ran counter-radicalization programs, and countries like Saudi Arabia attempted to head off those who would join al-Qa’ida, Salafi-Jihadist ideas remained airborne, finding willing hosts and vectors.

Perhaps one of the most virulent spreaders of this ideology was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born, Yemeni preacher whose reach is still felt today. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a lecturer in Terrorism and Radicalisation Studies at Kings College London (the author’s alma mater) and Research Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University offers a fascinating insight into al-Awlaki’s personal ideological evolution and how he became so effective in communicating the Salafi-Jihadist message.

According to one study, al-Awlaki is linked to at least one quarter of the Islamists convicted on terrorism-related charges in the United States since 2007 alone. Though he was killed in a drone strike in 2011, the insidiousness and effectiveness of his message lives on today and almost certainly will in the years to come.

While al-Qa’ida is a shadow of what it once was and the Islamic State (IS) is largely degraded (but not defeated) and whose predecessor al-Awlaki praised (the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)), al-Awlaki’s message lives on and is cited by IS sympathizers, supporters, and its own propaganda arm. In some of its messaging, he sits alongside Osama bin-Laden and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, something that can’t be said of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin-Laden’s successor (this in and of itself is unsurprising, as the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida are not what you would call allies).

Reading Incitement, you can’t help but see just why al-Awlaki was and remains so effective as a communicator and recruiter. Meleagrou-Hitchens goes through great detail explaining the antecedents of al-Awlaki’s thinking, the various schools of Islamic thought and jurisprudence that make up the landscape of contemporary Islamist political thinking. For a layperson, it is challenging to track which thinker said what and from which school it was derived. It is, without question, absolutely fascinating and Meleagrou-Hitchens is an excellent guide.

But arguably that isn’t necessarily the point—this complexity is the very thing that al-Awlaki overcame, even if that was not his stated goal. He broke down or simply ignored the legal nuances and complexities of the broader pantheon of Islamic thinking, choosing instead to focus on storytelling from the life of the prophet Mohammad.

It is akin to the Catholic Church only focusing on the First and Second Vatican Council, debating and discussing the nuances of papal supremacy, the role of bishops, et cetera, to the exclusion of anything else. But, a Catholic priest from Boston arrives on the scene and tells the stories of the life of Jesus Christ and his followers, their tests of faith, and the persecution they felt. Which is more compelling and relatable to the average person?

This relatability is the hallmark of a great communicator: taking the great and grandiose and making it understandable and visceral for the average or common person.

This is to say nothing of the fact that al-Awlaki managed to communicate this complexity into English, thereby broadening the reach of his message and the message of Salafi-Jihadists writ large. Al-Awlaki’s translation of “Book of Jihad” by Ibn Nuhaas and “Constants of the Path of Jihad” by Yusuf al-Uyayree brought jihadist texts to the English-speaking masses, removing a barrier to entry for many.

It is fascinating to see that, in Meleagrou-Hitchens’ analysis, al-Awlaki’s worldview was closer to the Salafists than many originally understood and that the transition to the advocacy of Salafi-Jihadism was not surprising as popular narratives may have presented. This fluidity may also be explained by his absence of formal clerical certification or “lack of scholarly credentials”.

The fact that he neither subscribed to one school of Islamic thought or jurisprudence nor studied under one of the leading Imams allowed him to have a certain philosophical flexibility that otherwise may not have been present. Indeed, in his early lectures and presentations, he did not openly advocate a violent solution, but as the book describes, he did hold a romantic view of jihad, finding it to be a constant and unchanging aspect of worship.

Meleagrou-Hitchens notes that al-Awlaki did not, so far as is known, show a self-awareness of this transformation. Al-Awlaki later said that he gave non-violence a chance while in America, but concluded that it would not work. His transformation was thus not a reaction of personal experiences, as some have suggested (e.g. pressure from the FBI or his arrest and imprisonment in Yemen) but as a reaction to what he saw as a “war on Islam” post-9/11.

With his foundation as a popular Salafist speaker and the lack of a scholarly footing, his transition to Salafi-Jihadism is less sudden than is often presented. This gradual or slight transition also explains his widespread attractiveness to would-be jihadists. His intellectual foundation was well established, and his worldview consistent, the only real appreciable change was the shift to the advocacy of violence as opposed to Islamic activism. As Meleagrou-Hitchens notes, his worldview and framing were fairly consistent throughout his years, the only real change was his solution.

What was equally fascinating, and likely surprising for many readers was how al-Awlaki walked listeners and readers to his desired conclusion—violent jihad—often without the explicit call to arms. It is here too that his mark as a clear communicator is evidenced. By creating the frame through which would-be jihadists could see the world, walking them towards the logical conclusion, but allowing them to reach the answer, the radicalization of the individual was in their own hands. It was less a call-to-arms and more a journey of self-discovery and diagnosis, which is infinitely more effective and longer-lasting.

His framing, his message, and the medium were of the right place and time for many disaffected Muslims who found themselves encountering perceived hostility in the broader world and amidst and internal struggle for identity. Beyond just a sense of place and purpose, he brought jihad home for many of those who viewed it as something that happened “over there” and, in doing so, helped transform jihad from a centralized top-down al-Qa’ida style activity to something that was “open source” that anyone could do wherever they found themselves.

Here, by contributing to the changing the methodology of jihad, is a lasting impact for al-Awlaki. The grand plans of 9/11 and the earlier Bojinka Plot were replaced by “lone wolf” or self-radicalized individuals, the intervention of which is vastly more challenging. The “propaganda of the deed”, or the signaling value of an attack, shifted from a group activity to an individual calling for would-be jihadists.  

Meleagrou-Hitchens looks at three cases where al-Awlaki had a demonstrable impact on jihadists: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nidal Hassan, and Zachary Chesser. It is interesting to see how al-Awlaki impacted these three individuals who were all at different stages of radicalization, and for different reasons, in their respective lives.

Al-Awlaki provided a sense of self for these three individuals at a time when they were experiencing identity changes or life crises. Abdulmutallab, who would go on to be the “underwear bomber”, was a zealous convert trying to find his place amidst London’s Islamist landscape. Hassan, a U.S. Army officer who attacked Fort Hood, lost his parents and rediscovered Islam, but found himself struggling to reconcile the uniform with his “war-on-Islam” conspiratorial worldview. Chesser, also a convert, found al-Awlaki to be a guide on his personal journey.

Meleagrou-Hitchens sums up al-Awlaki’s impact thusly: “Using his unique storytelling style, he connected and interwove history, religion, and feelings of injustice into a convincing narrative and in the process created a platform for Salafi-Jihadist praxis in the West”.

Al-Awlaki’s legacy and impact will be with us for generations to come, and Meleagrou-Hitchens provides a welcome framework for understanding what he said and what his impact was, and will likely be, going forward.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad

April 2, 2020

Book Review: Incitement—Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (Cover Image by Harvard University Press).

I

n this pandemic environment, it is oddly appropriate to be reading about something else that can go viral—ideas, in this case, Salafi-Jihadist ideas. Similar to how implemented quarantine measures won’t completely eliminate COVID-19, there is little expectation that anything can be done to fully stop these Salafi-Jihadist ideas from continuing to spread.

Book Review: Incitement—Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (Cover Image by Harvard University Press).

While the United States waged the Global War on Terror, allies such as the United Kingdom and Jordan ran counter-radicalization programs, and countries like Saudi Arabia attempted to head off those who would join al-Qa’ida, Salafi-Jihadist ideas remained airborne, finding willing hosts and vectors.

Perhaps one of the most virulent spreaders of this ideology was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born, Yemeni preacher whose reach is still felt today. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a lecturer in Terrorism and Radicalisation Studies at Kings College London (the author’s alma mater) and Research Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University offers a fascinating insight into al-Awlaki’s personal ideological evolution and how he became so effective in communicating the Salafi-Jihadist message.

According to one study, al-Awlaki is linked to at least one quarter of the Islamists convicted on terrorism-related charges in the United States since 2007 alone. Though he was killed in a drone strike in 2011, the insidiousness and effectiveness of his message lives on today and almost certainly will in the years to come.

While al-Qa’ida is a shadow of what it once was and the Islamic State (IS) is largely degraded (but not defeated) and whose predecessor al-Awlaki praised (the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)), al-Awlaki’s message lives on and is cited by IS sympathizers, supporters, and its own propaganda arm. In some of its messaging, he sits alongside Osama bin-Laden and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, something that can’t be said of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin-Laden’s successor (this in and of itself is unsurprising, as the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida are not what you would call allies).

Reading Incitement, you can’t help but see just why al-Awlaki was and remains so effective as a communicator and recruiter. Meleagrou-Hitchens goes through great detail explaining the antecedents of al-Awlaki’s thinking, the various schools of Islamic thought and jurisprudence that make up the landscape of contemporary Islamist political thinking. For a layperson, it is challenging to track which thinker said what and from which school it was derived. It is, without question, absolutely fascinating and Meleagrou-Hitchens is an excellent guide.

But arguably that isn’t necessarily the point—this complexity is the very thing that al-Awlaki overcame, even if that was not his stated goal. He broke down or simply ignored the legal nuances and complexities of the broader pantheon of Islamic thinking, choosing instead to focus on storytelling from the life of the prophet Mohammad.

It is akin to the Catholic Church only focusing on the First and Second Vatican Council, debating and discussing the nuances of papal supremacy, the role of bishops, et cetera, to the exclusion of anything else. But, a Catholic priest from Boston arrives on the scene and tells the stories of the life of Jesus Christ and his followers, their tests of faith, and the persecution they felt. Which is more compelling and relatable to the average person?

This relatability is the hallmark of a great communicator: taking the great and grandiose and making it understandable and visceral for the average or common person.

This is to say nothing of the fact that al-Awlaki managed to communicate this complexity into English, thereby broadening the reach of his message and the message of Salafi-Jihadists writ large. Al-Awlaki’s translation of “Book of Jihad” by Ibn Nuhaas and “Constants of the Path of Jihad” by Yusuf al-Uyayree brought jihadist texts to the English-speaking masses, removing a barrier to entry for many.

It is fascinating to see that, in Meleagrou-Hitchens’ analysis, al-Awlaki’s worldview was closer to the Salafists than many originally understood and that the transition to the advocacy of Salafi-Jihadism was not surprising as popular narratives may have presented. This fluidity may also be explained by his absence of formal clerical certification or “lack of scholarly credentials”.

The fact that he neither subscribed to one school of Islamic thought or jurisprudence nor studied under one of the leading Imams allowed him to have a certain philosophical flexibility that otherwise may not have been present. Indeed, in his early lectures and presentations, he did not openly advocate a violent solution, but as the book describes, he did hold a romantic view of jihad, finding it to be a constant and unchanging aspect of worship.

Meleagrou-Hitchens notes that al-Awlaki did not, so far as is known, show a self-awareness of this transformation. Al-Awlaki later said that he gave non-violence a chance while in America, but concluded that it would not work. His transformation was thus not a reaction of personal experiences, as some have suggested (e.g. pressure from the FBI or his arrest and imprisonment in Yemen) but as a reaction to what he saw as a “war on Islam” post-9/11.

With his foundation as a popular Salafist speaker and the lack of a scholarly footing, his transition to Salafi-Jihadism is less sudden than is often presented. This gradual or slight transition also explains his widespread attractiveness to would-be jihadists. His intellectual foundation was well established, and his worldview consistent, the only real appreciable change was the shift to the advocacy of violence as opposed to Islamic activism. As Meleagrou-Hitchens notes, his worldview and framing were fairly consistent throughout his years, the only real change was his solution.

What was equally fascinating, and likely surprising for many readers was how al-Awlaki walked listeners and readers to his desired conclusion—violent jihad—often without the explicit call to arms. It is here too that his mark as a clear communicator is evidenced. By creating the frame through which would-be jihadists could see the world, walking them towards the logical conclusion, but allowing them to reach the answer, the radicalization of the individual was in their own hands. It was less a call-to-arms and more a journey of self-discovery and diagnosis, which is infinitely more effective and longer-lasting.

His framing, his message, and the medium were of the right place and time for many disaffected Muslims who found themselves encountering perceived hostility in the broader world and amidst and internal struggle for identity. Beyond just a sense of place and purpose, he brought jihad home for many of those who viewed it as something that happened “over there” and, in doing so, helped transform jihad from a centralized top-down al-Qa’ida style activity to something that was “open source” that anyone could do wherever they found themselves.

Here, by contributing to the changing the methodology of jihad, is a lasting impact for al-Awlaki. The grand plans of 9/11 and the earlier Bojinka Plot were replaced by “lone wolf” or self-radicalized individuals, the intervention of which is vastly more challenging. The “propaganda of the deed”, or the signaling value of an attack, shifted from a group activity to an individual calling for would-be jihadists.  

Meleagrou-Hitchens looks at three cases where al-Awlaki had a demonstrable impact on jihadists: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nidal Hassan, and Zachary Chesser. It is interesting to see how al-Awlaki impacted these three individuals who were all at different stages of radicalization, and for different reasons, in their respective lives.

Al-Awlaki provided a sense of self for these three individuals at a time when they were experiencing identity changes or life crises. Abdulmutallab, who would go on to be the “underwear bomber”, was a zealous convert trying to find his place amidst London’s Islamist landscape. Hassan, a U.S. Army officer who attacked Fort Hood, lost his parents and rediscovered Islam, but found himself struggling to reconcile the uniform with his “war-on-Islam” conspiratorial worldview. Chesser, also a convert, found al-Awlaki to be a guide on his personal journey.

Meleagrou-Hitchens sums up al-Awlaki’s impact thusly: “Using his unique storytelling style, he connected and interwove history, religion, and feelings of injustice into a convincing narrative and in the process created a platform for Salafi-Jihadist praxis in the West”.

Al-Awlaki’s legacy and impact will be with us for generations to come, and Meleagrou-Hitchens provides a welcome framework for understanding what he said and what his impact was, and will likely be, going forward.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.