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Anwar Al Awlaki’s Global Reach

03/08/2010

Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al Awlaki has becoming something of an international boogeyman, with traces and connections to him being found amongst an ever expanding array of terrorist plots around the world. According to the U.S., he has gone beyond being a nuisance preacher to being actively involved in terrorist plotting – his connections to underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab have earned him a place on the U.S. Predator hit-list.

But in many ways, more interesting than his apparently growing role as a preacher moving up the ladder to training individuals, is his ability to reach out through cyberspace to an ever-expanding and diverse community of people. Two recent cases highlight this in particular: Paul “Bilal” Rockwood and his wife Nadia in Alaska, and on the other side of the world in Singapore,Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid.

Awlaki is the common thread between the two. According to court documents, Rockwood was a long-term follower, having converted in “late 2001 or early 2002” while he was living in Virginia. He rapidly became a “strict adherent to the violent Jihad-promoting ideology of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki….This included a personal conviction that it was his (Rockwood’s) religious responsibility to exact revenge by death on anyone who desecrated Islam.” While his timings appear to correlate with when Awlaki was also in Virginia it is unclear from information in the public domain whether they actually met.

Having been radicalized, over the next eight years Rockwood, who when he was arrested was a 35 year-old weatherman in the charmingly named King Salmon, Alaska, identified a list of possible targets through “visiting websites on the internet that professed to identify individuals, including American servicemen, who were alleged by the websites to have committed crimes of violence against Muslim civilians.” He further researched how to execute them “including discussing the use of mail bombs and the possibility of killing targets by gunshot to the head.” He narrowed his list down to 15 possible targets and planned on sharing this list, through his knowing wife, with a third person whom he believed shared his beliefs. From here it got to the Feds, certainly suggesting that this third party was not all that he or she seemed.

On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely that Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid ever had opportunity to meet the preacher. A 20-year old national serviceman in Singapore, he self-radicalized online and attempted to make contact with Awlaki through the net claiming to want to fight alongside him in Yemen. He was also in contact with a suspected Al Qaeda recruiter who urged him to go fight in Afghanistan and he produced at least one “self-made video glorifying martyrdom and justifying suicide bombing.” According to information released after his detainment under the Internal Security Act, his main influences appear to have been Anwar al-Awlaki and Australian-Lebanese former boxer Feiz Muhammed.

At around the same time as they detained Hamid, Singaporean police also placed Muhammad Anwar Jailani, 44, and Muhammad Thahir Shaik Dawood, 27 on two-year “restriction orders.” Jailani was apparently distributing Awlaki material, while Dawood went so far as to try to join the preacher in Yemen, though he was unable to connect with him and was instead rather disillusioned by what he did find there.

While not delving into the detail of the plots (which are not quite on the scale of 9/11), the running theme is Anwar al-Awlaki and his ability to provide some sort of indirect ideological guidance to people through the internet. While he may have had some contact with Rockwood early on, it still took Rockwood about five years before he started his research, and another three years before he moved into action. For the Singaporean’s, no contact appears to have taken place, but (like many others) the men appear to have sought out Awlaki as a guide to carrying out contemporary jihad. It would seem in many ways as though Awlaki, rather than Osama or even Abu Musab al Suri, is actually proving to be the globalized voice of jihad. His cry for personalized jihad in English appears to resonate amongst the global community of disenfranchised individuals across racial, national, and generational lines (I have not seen any evidence of gender yet, but women in jihad remains a marginal feature).

What is not clear if this is anything particularly new, or whether he is simply the latest in a long line of radical clerics whose charisma is able to draw people to him and it his ability to use the internet that has given him a global reach. Whatever the case, it is clear that his online presence is also what will guarantee him longevity beyond if the Predator’s do ever catch him.