Since 9/11, the terrorist threat to the West has evolved. Attacks planned or carried out against the U.S. and British homelands increasingly involve young Muslims living in the West. This new specter of what is commonly referred to as “homegrown terrorism” demonstrates that Salafi-jihadi messaging and propaganda has to some extent succeeded in convincing Western Muslims that jihad is not strictly a foreign concept practiced by villagers in Afghanistan and multimillionaire Arab war veterans, but is one that they too can embrace. In addition, global jihadist ideologues have effectively conveyed that the death and suffering meted out against Muslims is no longer confined to far-away lands, but is evident in their own countries. From the United States to Sweden, this propaganda argues that the “Crusader West’s” long-running conspiracy to destroy Islam and Muslims is real and expanding, and Western Muslims must follow in the footsteps of the heroes of Islam and take up the call to arms before it is too late. Although ahistorical and often counterfactual, this narrative is supported by using simplistic interpretations of Islamic scripture and early history, making it easy to grasp and convincing.

Indeed, although the reasons why some Western Muslims have planned or carried out attacks within their home countries are numerous and complex, in the vast majority of recent cases there exists one basic constant: the embrace of a primarily grievance-driven and religious ideology, often with the aid of the sermons and lectures of an ideologue who has an intimate grasp of Western culture and is perceived by his followers to be pious and knowledgeable.

As has been well documented, Anwar al-`Awlaqi is among the most popular of such ideologues. The question in many cases is not whether al-`Awlaqi successfully conveyed both the “war on Islam” narrative and the religious imperative to react with violence, but rather how he has achieved this. He is one of the ideological leaders of what can be described as the Western wing of the global jihadist movement, which seeks to give more resonance to the Salafi-jihadi ideology among Western Muslims. Social scientists have long debated the importance of leadership in mobilizing and recruiting members of social movement organizations, and of particular concern has been how to strike the right balance between acknowledging both the importance of individual human agency and the critical role of the Weberian “charismatic authority” of a respected and (perceived to be) knowledgeable leader.[1]

This article argues the importance of focusing on the latter, taking into account the role of the leader as one who, according to Tarrow, uses “contention to exploit political opportunities, create collective identities” and mobilize individuals “against more powerful opponents.”[2] Having now tasked himself with “selling” Salafi-jihadi ideology to Western Muslims, al-`Awlaqi’s function as a leader who is able to frame the movement’s ideology in a manner that resonates with the interests, values, and beliefs of his target audience is crucial, as is his ability to articulate grievances and apply the religious ideology to formulate and justify violent responses.[3]

As both the United States and a number of European governments create and adjust policies aimed at countering domestic radicalization, they will need to fully comprehend these details. By examining a number of case studies of al-`Awlaqi’s followers who have been mobilized, this article aims to contribute to this understanding.

Rajib and Tehzeeb Karim
In late February 2011, British Airways employee Rajib Karim was convicted in Britain for conspiring with Anwar al-`Awlaqi to assist in orchestrating an attack on an airliner, as well as pass along critical information on airport security measures.[4] In the days immediately following the trial, Scotland Yard released transcripts of sections of Karim’s e-mail correspondence with both his Yemen-based brother, Tehzeeb, who was helping him get in contact with the ideologue, and with al-`Awlaqi himself. These provide rare and valuable insights into the mind of an al-`Awlaqi disciple.

Upon reading the messages, Karim’s and Tehzeeb’s reverence for the “shaykh” who they considered to be a spiritual leader is beyond doubt, as is the fact that their resolve to assist in, or carry out, an attack was immeasurably strengthened after making direct contact with him. In a message to al-`Awlaqi, Tehzeeb described how they viewed him as a legitimate interpreter of God’s will: “it fills our heart with happiness to be in direct communication with you. only allah knows what we feel about you. and this is from the honor which allah bestows on those who honor his words and his deen [religion] and its sanctities.”[5]

Similarly, Rajib told al-`Awlaqi how much “respect and love” he had for him, and that hearing directly from him was a “blessing from allah” that “gave me hope.” Upon offering to take a job as a flight attendant, he informed al-`Awlaqi of his concerns about having to take part in activities that are forbidden in Islam, such as serving alcohol and non-halal food. In what is an illustration of how much emphasis he placed on gaining religious sanction for his actions, as well as what sort of role al-`Awlaqi plays for potential terrorists, Rajib asked the preacher if he could provide him with a dalil (Islamic scriptural evidence), which proved that taking the job was acceptable for a Muslim if undertaken in pursuance of “the jihadi cause.”

The e-mails also provide researchers with useful information on what particular elements of al-`Awlaqi’s message resonated with Rajib who, unlike his brother, lived in the West. In al-`Awlaqi’s translation of Yusuf al-`Uyayri’s “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” his primary concern was two-fold: to make the global war on Islam a reality for Western Muslims, and to prove that violent jihad or migration (hijra) are the only possible and religiously acceptable responses. He argued that Muslims in the West are in an identical situation to that faced by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in pre-Islamic Mecca, where they were persecuted and forced to make the hijra to Medina and subsequently fight jihad. Thus, any Muslim who lives peacefully in the lands of the “enemies of Islam” is a munafiq (religious hypocrite), as he has rejected jihad, instead choosing to “customize” the religion to suit a particular geographic location. Proclaiming that “Muhammad did not customize Islam based on his location…he customized the location based on Islam,” al-`Awlaqi framed attempts by both Western governments and many Western Muslim organizations to reinterpret jihad along more non-violent lines as part of the concerted effort to destroy “pure” Islam, and therefore an ideological element of the multifaceted war on the religion and its followers.

Alongside this teaching is also the doctrine of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), which calls for Muslims to reject non-Muslim practices and avoid relationships with unbelievers.[6] Described by al-`Awlaqi in “44 Ways to Support Jihad” as a “central element of our military creed,” he argued that this doctrine is crucial to the success of jihad in the West. Without a proper grasp of both their globally conscious Islamic identity and the hatred they must harbor toward their non-Muslim neighbors and colleagues, Western Muslims cannot achieve the goals of the global movement.

The stark choices of either flight or violence offered by al-`Awlaqi clearly had an impact on Rajib Karim, who on January 29, 2010 wrote to him describing his fear of becoming a munafiq due to having co-existed peacefully with non-Muslims in Britain for so long:

“Dear shaykh…I always write to my brother saying how depressed I am living in Britain and how I hate myself for not making hijra and also not being able to do anything here…from the moment I entered this country my niya [intention] was to do something for the deen [religion], it was not to make a living here and start enjoying life in this country. As month after month and then slowly years went by without anything happening and also not being able to have any concrete plans to do anything here, my iman [faith] was getting affected. I started feeling like a real munafiq [hypocrite]. It has been three years that I have been living here away from the company of good brothers and spending a good part of my working day with the kuffar [non-Muslims].”

Karim’s e-mails demonstrate that the tension between fulfilling the required criteria laid out by al-`Awlaqi and al-Qa`ida for being a “true” Muslim and living peacefully among non-Muslims in a country run by a secular democratic government can become overwhelming for a small number of Western Muslims, obliging them to seek out ways to counterbalance their situation.

Faisal Shahzad
In the months following Faisal Shahzad’s arrest for attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square in May 2010, a video was released by his patrons in the Pakistani Taliban showing him offering explanations for his actions while training in the mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan. Among the inspirations he is reported to have cited to interrogators was the work of Anwar al-`Awlaqi, and a close analysis of the video certainly suggests this to be the case.[7] Indeed, during his address he took a moment to thank “those shaykhs who are spreading da`wa in English…talking about jihad, out loud,” claiming that “it’s because of those shaykhs that I’m probably here today.”[8] His justifications for violence appear closely related to those found in al-`Awlaqi’s “Constants,” in particular al-`Awlaqi’s interpretation of jihad as a duty (fard) equal to, if not above, the more common Islamic practices of prayer, fasting and the Hajj pilgrimage. Quoting Qur’an 2:216 and 2:183, al-`Awlaqi argued that:

“Allah says, ‘Fighting has been prescribed upon you and you dislike it, but it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you and you love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knows and you know not.’ This ayah [verse] says that fighting is prescribed upon you, so it is a fard, it’s an instruction from Allah…They [jihad and fasting] are both in Surah al-Baqarah. Fighting is prescribed upon you and fasting is prescribed upon you; so how come we are treating them differently?”

As with many of his other arguments, this is by no means an original concept, yet he is aware that the conceptualization of jihad is one of the defining debates being had by Muslims in the West, both among themselves and with wider Western society. As different Islamic organizations and sects vie for influence among young Western Muslims, al-`Awlaqi seeks to provide ideological ammunition for the minority of Salafi-jihadi followers. He also used this argument as further proof of the war on Islam, claiming that by working against jihad, Western governments are actively preventing Muslims from carrying out their divinely ordained duties to both the defense and spread of their religion.

This interpretation of jihad was clearly not lost on Shahzad, who used the same Qur’anic references as al-`Awlaqi (which refer to the ordained obligations of jihad and fasting respectively) to make the same point about jihad in his video address:

“One of the most prominent things in Islam…when I came to it, is jihad. People do prayer, they…give zakat [obligatory charitable donations], they do fasting, they go to Hajj, but they follow part of it [Islam], but they don’t follow the other part of it, which is fighting in the cause of Allah…I don’t understand why people follow one of the commandments, but they don’t follow the other commandment…they are equally important.”[9]

Like Rajib Karim, he is also conscious of the ultimatum offered by al-`Awlaqi to Muslims living peacefully in the West as supposed munafiqin, and sees two options available for the “true” follower:

“I urge my brothers and sisters and all the Muslims living abroad to either immigrate, migrate as soon as possible to the Muslim nation or if you die you will die in kufr…But today, alhamdulillah [praise God], I am among them [the non-Muslims] and planning to wage an attack inside America.”[10]

Zachary Adam Chesser (also known as Abu Talha al-Amrikee)
The Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy that began in Denmark in 2005 and reached its peak during the following four years represented a seminal moment for Islam in the West. Since it began, it has sparked numerous debates surrounding the reconciliation of Islam and Western society, including whether or not this is a requirement and, if so, if it is at all possible.

Those who have used the issue to prove the fundamental incompatibility of the two come in many different forms, from conservative non-Muslim commentators who argue that Islam represents a threat to some of the basic intellectual precepts of Western civilization, to small groups of Salafi-jihadis who have taken the opportunity to inflame communal tensions and depict the cartoons as part of the Western campaign to destroy Islam.[11] Among the most egregious examples of the latter was a February 2006 march in London organized by the now banned Salafi-jihadi group al-Muhajiroun, in which protesters held up placards calling for the abolition of free speech and the murder of anyone deemed to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad or Islam.[12]

Again showing an acute awareness of issues that concern many Western Muslims, al-`Awlaqi used the controversy to further develop his “war on Islam” frame and progress the aims of the global jihad. In May 2008, shortly following his release from prison in Yemen, he gave a lecture entitled “The Dust Will Never Settle Down,” in which he again interwove Islamic texts and history with the present day to justify the Salafi-jihadi call for violence. Given as a live lecture via an online chat room, the publicity for the talk was posted on many of the leading English-language Islamist forums. It assured readers that the preacher would provide the Islamic solution to this problem and explain “what is the ruling of Shari`a on such incidents [insulting the Prophet Muhammad] and how did the Sahaba [followers of the Prophet Muhammad] deal with such people and what do our scholars say about them.”[13]

One of the disciples al-`Awlaqi chose to illustrate his point is Muhammad ibn Maslama who, according to a hadith in Sahih Bukhari, was tasked by the Prophet Muhammad to find and kill Ka’ab ibn al-Ashraf, a poet and Jewish tribal leader in pre-Islamic Mecca who wrote poems insulting the Prophet Muhammad and lamenting the victory of the Muslims over the Quraish in the Battle of Badr. The passion in al-`Awlaqi’s praise for Ibn Maslama’s zeal and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad was rivaled only by that shown in his criticism of modern day Western Muslims who have allowed this to go unpunished:

“How concerned are you? How concerned are we when it comes to the honor of Rasool, when it comes to the honor of Islam, when it comes to the book of Allah? How serious do we take it?…We want the spirit of the Sahaba.”[14]

A clear call for violent action against the modern day al-Ashrafs, he quoted the Prophet Muhammad’s justification taken from an account given in As-Saram Al-Maslool `Ala Shatim Ar-Rasul (The Drawn Sword and the One Who Curses the Messenger), by medieval Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya:

“He [al-Ashraf] spoke against us. He spoke against me and he defamed me with his poetry. And then he made it clear to the Jews—if any one of you, you the Yahood [Jews], or the mushrikeen [polytheists], if any one of you try to defame me through your words, this [the sword] will be the way we deal with you.”

After the airing of an episode of the American-animated TV series South Park, in which the Prophet Muhammad and the controversy surrounding his depiction were given the usual satirical treatment by its producers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the death threats that followed owed much to al-`Awlaqi. Zachary Adam Chesser, who was involved with the English-language Salafi-jihadi website, used the lecture to legitimize a posting on the group’s site in which he claimed that:

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh [a Dutch film director murdered after making a film criticizing Islam] if they do air this show…Join us in this campaign to let Matt Stone & Trey Parker know that…the dust will never settle down.”[15]

Chesser, who was by this time in e-mail contact with al-`Awlaqi, included in this posting a video made by Revolution Muslim which announced the beginning of the “Defense of the Prophet Campaign,” depicting pictures from the South Park episode accompanied by the audio of al-`Awlaqi’s lecture. Chesser would later be convicted in the United States for providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats and soliciting others to threaten violence.[16]

In each of the cases cited above, al-`Awlaqi’s involvement as the charismatic, ideological leader appears to be an important factor, with two of the three explicitly referring to him as the main inspiration for their actions. At some stage, both Chesser and Karim were in e-mail contact with him, and though that surely strengthened their resolve, it is not necessarily always a prerequisite for action.[17]

By their own accounts, the majority of “homegrown” Salafi-jihadis join the global jihad out of a sincere belief that they are acting upon a religious mandate to defend themselves and their fellow Muslims from what they perceive to be a conspiracy to destroy them. This has, in part, taken place due to the propaganda efforts of al-Qa`ida and its affiliates. Through his charismatic delivery and background as a respected preacher in the United States, al-`Awlaqi in particular has succeeded in putting Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam and Islamic history against the backdrop of Western discursive trends and broader political developments chiefly related to the position of Muslims in the West, Western foreign policy and the globally conscious concept of the umma.

Work to counter this messaging is currently being undertaken by policymakers, think-tanks and other civil society organizations throughout the Western world. As these and many other case studies demonstrate, the role of ideology and its delivery through charismatic leaders must be firmly taken into account.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a Ph.D. candidate and Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College, London. He is author of the forthcoming pamphlet “As American as Apple Pie: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Jihad Against the West.”

[1] For a comprehensive discussion of this debate, see Aldon Morris and Suzanne Staggenborg, “Leadership in Social Movements” in David Snow, Sarah Soule and Hanspeter Kriesi eds., The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004). For Weber’s theory of charismatic leadership, see Max Weber et al., Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Somerville, NJ: Bedminster Press, 1968).

[2] Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] For more on framing and frame resonance, see Robert Benford and David Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000).

[4] “Terror Plot BA Man Rajib Karim Gets 30 Years,” BBC, March 18, 2011.

[5] The transcripts of the e-mails between al-`Awlaqi and the Karim brothers were released by the Metropolitan Police in February 2011. They have been reproduced here in their original syntax, including all spelling and grammatical errors.

[6] For more on this doctrine, see, for example, Muhammad Saeed al-Qahtani, Al-Wala’ wal Bara’: According to the Aqeedah of the Salaf (London: al-Firdous, 1993); Joas Wagemakers, ‘The Transformation of a Radical Concept: al wala’ wal bara’ in the Ideology of Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi,” in Roel Meijer ed., Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (London: Hurst & Company, 2009).

[7]  “Times Square Bomb Suspect had Links to Terror Preacher,” Daily Telegraph, May 7, 2010; “Sources: Shahzad Had Contact With Awlaki, Taliban Chief, and Mumbai Massacre Mastermind,” ABC News, May 6, 2010.

[8] These quotes are drawn from Faisal Shahzad’s video announcement, which was available on various jihadist web forums.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For an example of the former, see, Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

[12] “Cartoon Controversy Spreads Throughout Muslim World,” Guardian, February 4, 2006.

[13] This promotion of al-`Awlaqi’s live online lecture appeared on, among other places,

[14] Anwar al-`Awlaqi, ‘The Dust Will Never Settle Down,” May 2008, available on various Islamist web forums.

[15] This blog has since been removed from the internet.  Copies are in the author’s possession.

[16] “Man who Threatened ‘South Park’ Creators Gets 25 Years in Prison,” CNN, February 24, 2011; “Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee: An Extensive Online Footprint,” Anti-Defamation League, February 25, 2011.

[17] See, for example, the British case of Roshonara Choudhry, who was directly inspired by al-`Awlaqi’s work, but never made any contact with him.

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