Anwar Awlaki tweets from the tomb
Anwar Awlaki lives — in social media. Before he was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack in September 2011, the U.S.-born jihadist pulled off a neat trick. He established a global media brand that has survived his death and remains politically relevant from Yemen to Washington to Paris.
A detailed dispatch from The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill traces how the social media brand managers at AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a network built by Awlaki) disseminated their news/propaganda/product in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. They skillfully took credit for the Kouachi brothers’ murder spree and linked their actions to the legacy of Awlaki, an imam and writer whose post-9/11 advocacy of jihad struck dread in the hearts of Western intelligence agencies and police departments.
Did AQAP conspire with the Paris brothers whose shooting spree killed two cops and ten media workers? The TV network correspondents are starting to get illegal leaks from classified intelligence files. (Don’t worry these leakers and journos won’t get hounded like James Risen). The talking heads are chiming in. While the details are sorted out on cable TV, it is safe to say that Cherif and Said Kouachi were inspired by Awlaki. A witness to the magazine shooting says one of the men shouted during the assault, “You can tell the media that it’s al Qaeda in Yemen.”
Scahill is at pains to note there’s no definitive proof that Awlaki committed any one of the particular crimes of which he is regularly accused. He notes correctly that AQAP, like other political factions, sometimes takes credit for things long after the fact. He doesn’t mention but it is worth noting that Awlaki was also a learned Islamic scholar who lectured prolifically on topics apparently unrelated to global jihad like “tolerance” and the lives of prophets.
But, as quoted by Scahill, Awlaki’s videos and statements make clear his intent to foster attack on Western civilians — a crowded civilian airliner here, a busy editorial office there. Like any good operator in the world of covert action, Awlaki knew how to preserve plausible deniability while retaining operational flexibility. He would be proud of the Kouachi brothers. He would, like AQAP, call them “heroes.” His extra-judicial assassination by the White House does not exculpate him from any war crimes he was proud to author.
Today’s Islamist assassins want to drape themselves in Awlaki’s cloak on their way to martyrdom. And with mastery of the Twitter arts they have succeeded. I’m afraid their next target will be Washington D.C., my home town which abounds in soft targets.