Al-Qaida's Americans Were Link To The West

Friday's drone strike in Yemen eliminated two Americans who have played a key role in the development of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were, above all else, the group's bridge to the West. The group is largely made up of Yemenis and Saudis who have hardly stepped foot out of the Middle East. That made Awlaki and Khan unique. Host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

He was the propagandist for al-Qaida. Then, last week, Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a missile fired from an American drone. He had been linked to the planning of several plots aimed at America. But it was his voice, his ability to speak to people here, people who might take up the cause of violent Islam that made him uniquely dangerous.

Here's Awlaki delivering his message a couple of years ago.

ANWAR AL: To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful co-existence with the nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?

CORNISH: Many of al-Qaida's top operatives have been killed in the last few months. But Awlaki may be one of the hardest to replace. And now U.S. officials have issued a travel alert, warning that his death has raised the risk of anti-American violence worldwide.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here to talk to us about why his death robs al-Qaida of a uniquely valuable asset, the media-savvy Westerner.

Hi there, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE: Hi, there. Good morning.

CORNISH: So talk to us a little bit about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Anwar al-Awlaki's role within the group.

TEMPLE: Well, the U.S. considers al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as AQAP, as the most dangerous of al-Qaida's so-called affiliates. It really came of age a couple of years ago in early 2009, when two al-Qaida groups - one in Yemen and the one in Saudi Arabia - decided to join forces. Before that the group was focused on attacking local targets, like oil pipelines and embassies - that sort of thing.

But when this more robust organization came about, the group started looking at playing a role in the global jihad. And that's when Anwar al-Awlaki began to take on a new importance for the group. Embarking on a global jihad played right into his strengths because Awlaki had been out in the world. He'd lived in the U.S., he spent time in Europe. So he provided an expertise that other members of this group, AQAP, just didn't have.

CORNISH: And is this, the expertise, just meaning his very specific understanding about the target, the U.S.?

TEMPLE: Right. He understood also how things would play in the U.S. You know, all these Saudis and Yemenis in AQAP just weren't media savvy. They don't know how to use the Internet very well. They weren't comfortable with computers. But Awlaki was all those things. And we'd heard in that tape earlier that he was soft spoken and really charismatic.

And because he had a following on the Web, he and AQAP didn't need to go out in search of recruits - the recruits came to them by surfing the Web. A perfect example is the North Carolina guy who was killed alongside Awlaki in Yemen. His name was Samir Khan. He'd seen Awlaki's videos on the Web and was inspired and moved to Yemen to be close to him.

And that ability to actually move people and attract people is what worried law enforcement in the U.S. so much about Awlaki.

CORNISH: And I get the sense that over the years we've heard more and more from anti-terror experts about the issue of lone wolves; that this character had the potential to move individuals, just from his speeches and the Internet.

TEMPLE: Yes, and the concern was that these recruits were almost impossible to trace. I mean the guy who's inspired on the Internet, how do you find him until he actually decides to do something? Let me give you a real life example. A Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad decided to build a car bomb and park it in Times Square and detonate it back in May 2010.

Law enforcement will tell you that he wasn't even on their radar screen until after the failed attack. And Faisal Shahzad told the FBI that the two things that inspired him to strike out against the United States was, oh, what he saw as the injustices of the drone program in Pakistan, and the inspirational speeches of Anwar al-Awlaki.

CORNISH: Let's talk a little bit more actually about Samir Khan. This was the young American who was killed riding in the same car with Awlaki last week

TEMPLE: Yes, Samir Khan was the next generation's Awlaki. He spent some time in New York and then moved down to North Carolina with his parents. And he brought a whole new set of skills to al-Qaida. He was really big into blogs. In fact, he actually had a pro-al-Qaida blog while he was here in the United States.

And he was really into desktop publishing and webzines. That's how Inspire magazine, this English-language webzine happened - it was Samir Khan's brainchild.

CORNISH: And what made Inspire magazine so special? I can imagine there're all kinds of blogs and websites online devoted to this kind of thing.

TEMPLE: Most of them actually are in Arabic. That was one thing, was it was in colloquial English. And it was kind of flashy. It had like speech balloons coming out of leaders, you know, pictures. And it had kooky articles - kind of how-to articles, like "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" or "What to Pack for Jihad."

And the way I've talked about it is that it's like a Cosmo magazine for Jihadis.

CORNISH: And the latest issue had just come out last week, right?

TEMPLE: That's right. That was the seventh issue, and presumably the last issue. And it had a lead article by Samir Khan about "Online Jihad and Media Wars." I mean he talks about how the Western media just doesn't understand how to reach out to young Muslims the way he does. And he said that al-Qaida was able to win the media war because its media operatives were so technologically savvy. And just days later, two of al-Qaida's most technologically savvy guys are killed.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE: You're so welcome.

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