Think Osama bin Laden was media-savvy? Just look at Anwar al-Awlaki. The 40-year-old imam wears traditional Muslim garb; but unlike bin Laden, he’s fluent in English. And in his YouTube sermons, he effortlessly mixes Islamic doctrine with colloquial references to U.S. pop culture.
In fact, al-Awlaki is American. Born in New Mexico, he attended college in Colorado, received a master’s degree in California and started doctoral studies in Washington, DC. He’s also the public face of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s most powerful franchise. His sermons on everything from marriage to paradise get up to 100,000 views. (Typical comment: “This Sheikh is awesome!!!”) Thanks to his success on YouTube, al-Awlaki is now considered a top candidate to be al Qaeda’s next leader.
“Al-Awlaki is a paradox,” notes Dr. Sajjan Gohel, international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London think tank. “He was arrested twice in the United States for soliciting prostitutes, but he has developed a reputation as bin Laden’s successor. He’s dangerous because he understands the Western mindset and is skilled at using modern media.”
Welcome to al Qaeda 2.0. AQAP and other jihadist groups now create videos and online chat rooms; they make sleek media productions on the Internet. Last year, for example, AQAP launched Inspire, a glossy English-language publication. The online magazine features catchy headlines, lots of photos, quotes by American celebrities and articles such as “Mujaheddin for beginners” and “Make a bomb in your mom’s kitchen.” It’s edited by Samir Khan, a young former New Yorker.
“He’s a very smooth, irreverent young guy, and a good graphic designer,” notes Scott Stewart, a vice president at intelligence firm Stratfor who worked on the investigation of al Qaeda’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 Americans. “The new al Qaeda is trying to reach younger people by appearing cool and hip.”
Earlier this year, AQAP launched Shamikha, an online magazine for women. Its niche: beauty tips mixed with articles with titles like: “How to marry a jihadist.”
Al Qaeda’s new generation of leaders have also studied Jack Welch-style management techniques.
“They’ve built up an impressive archive of self-studies and strategic analysis reports, available on jihadist Web forums, where members offer and advise on how to improve the terror organization’s success,” notes James Forest, former director of terrorism studies at the United States Military Academy. “Their much-used book, ‘Management of Savagery,’ argues that future al Qaeda leaders must correct organizational problems and create better propaganda.”
The new Afghanistan
YEMEN – Since 2004, when the U.K. expelled him, Anwar al-Awlaki has lived in Yemen. That’s where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is based.
“AQAP has eclipsed the core al Qaeda,” says Dr. Sajjan Gohel of the the Asia-Pacific Foundation. “Today the core al Qaeda is an Egyptian-Libyan group with power struggles. Their finances are drying up and the U.S. has slowly been killing off its leaders. AQAP doesn’t have that problem.”
AQAP’s mostly Yemeni and Saudi members and can operate freely in Yemen, which has replaced Afghanistan as a terrorist haven. “Terrorism is very cheap and easy when you’re based in Yemen,” says Scott Stewart, a former CIA investigator.