Scott Shane on the Lessons of Anwar Al-Awlaki

One of the things Scott Shane wants to impress on his audiences – both the readers of his book, Objective Troy, and the lecture-goers at his talk this past Friday – is that the digital age has severely complicated issues of national security and the spread of propaganda. In the twenty-first century, the United States uses Predator Drones – remotely controlled from military bases – to hit targets from over 1,000 miles away and a number of radical Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda harness the power of YouTube to recruit and inspire young Muslims around the world to commit terrorist attacks.

Scott Shane

Scott Shane

Brought to Brown by the Amnesty International Chapter and the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Scott Shane introduces himself by explaining that the journalism that led to Objective Troy started with some simple questions. What is the nature of terrorism? What leads someone to want to a kill a large group of strangers?

Then, diving into the topic at hand, Shane rewinds to New Mexico in 1971 – the place and date of Anwar Al-Awlaki’s birth. Awlaki would grow up to be Osama Bin Laden’s top recruiter as well as an operational member of Al-Qaeda, helping new recruits like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous “Underwear Bomber,” to secure explosive materials. But Awlaki wasn’t born into a radical Islamic family. Nasser Al Aulaqia, a Yemeni politician and Awlaki’s father, was a huge fan of Larry King, Shane tells the full crowd. Aulaqia wanted his son to grow up to be a engineer. But it wasn’t until Anwar Awlaki fell in with a conservative group of Muslims while studying at Colorado State University that he became interested in becoming an imam.

Awlaki began his preaching career in San Diego before being hired at a popular mosque just outside of Washington D.C. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, media outlets like the Washington Post, NBC and CBS looked for an Islamic presence on news segments to help “bridge the east and west.” Awlaki was smart, young, articulate and just a few miles outside of the capital, making him an easy choice for many outlets. Shane brings up a video on the projector, telling the audience: “this is the good Anwar.” The video is a Washington Post video from early 2002, following Anwar through his daily life at the mosque and at home. In one scene, Awlaki tells the reporter, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Then, by Shane’s telling, something happened to Awlaki. Unexpectedly, in March of 2002, Awlaki disappeared from the United States. Shane has a theory for why Awlaki left so abruptly but tells the audience that we’ll need to read his book to get that important bit.


Awlaki in an undated photo.

Anwar Al-Awlaki would end up back in Yemen. He found that as his preaching became more and more radical, the response he got from his congregation was more positive. He was arrested by the Yemini government and thrown in jail for 18 months without trial. In his lecture, Shane notes that the U.S government perhaps had a hand in keeping Awlaki locked up without the right to a fair trial.

Upon release, Al-Awlaki went from a radical imam to figurehead in Al-Qaeda. The hundreds of videos he had uploaded to YouTube were being watched by young Muslims all over the world. Shane pulls up another video and describes this one as the “bad Anwar.” In the Al-Qaeda-produced video, Awlaki wears a military jacket, telling viewers: “I invite you to fight in the west or join your brothers in the new front, Yemen.” Awlaki was put on Obama’s “Capture or Kill” list – and Shane points out that the list has resulted in less capturing and more killing (but that’s another discussion for another time). After an 18-month hunt for Awlaki, a hunt that involved numerous federal agencies, he was killed by drone strike in September of 2011 in Yemen. It was the first time in over two decades the United States military had killed an American civilian without charging them of a crime. But what the U.S military wasn’t able to destroy was Awlaki’s Internet presence. A quick search on YouTube for “Anwar Al-Awlaki” yields over 62,000 results of his speeches and collections of his quotes. Awlaki tapped into a vein of radical Islamic youth and it’s clear that, even in death, his utilization of social media platforms like Youtube is unrivaled in militant Islamist organizations.

It’s slightly unclear, even by the end of the lecture, whether Shane sees Awlaki as a tragic character who was inhumanely murdered by his own government as the result of the Obama Administration’s decision to step up drone strikes in the Middle East or an interesting case of how the power of the Internet has transformed international terrorism, serving as a home for radical thought in the form of videos like Awlaki’s. But as Shane wraps up his lecture, a final image appears on the projector, it’s of a young boy – Anwar’s son Abdulrahman. “Abdulrahman,” Shane notes, pointing to the image of the smiling sixteen-year old, that “[he] was also an American citizen. He was in Yemen, searching for his father in the fall of 2011 when he was killed by a drone strike just two weeks after his father’s death.”

“He had no ties to terrorism.”

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