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How dangerous is al-Awlaki?

The Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder described the Yemeni-American-born radical cleric Ayman al-Awlaki as “He would be on the same list with bin Laden[1].” Al-Awlaki officially and legally is not affiliated with al-Qaeda yet his radical and violent Jihad views are falling in the same line as those of al-Qaeda. Though the Awlak tribe[2] in southern Yemen is providing the protection for al-Awlaki, the leader of the al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula Nasir al-Wuhaishi known with the pseudonym Abu Baseer, offered in a statement posted online in May 2010 that it is their “legitimate duty,” to protect al-Awlaki[3].

Al-Awlaki’s name rose in a very short time in comparison to that of Osama bin Laden and al-Libi[4]. First time we heard of Awlaki’s name was after the horrific Ft. Hood shooting in November 2009[5], and then a month later with the failed Christmas Day underwear-bombing plot[6]. He is behind the radicalization of the 21-year old London-University student Roshonara Choudhary who attacked British MP Stephen Timms “in revenge for the people of Iraq.[7]” Today his online statements and lectures in English and Arabic are the powerful recruiting method that is reaching out to the moderate young Muslim youth living mainly in the United Kingdom and the United States[8].

Al-Awlaki is different from other radical leaders in that he was born and raised in the United States, i.e. he is able to think, understand, and communicate smoothly with followers living in the West. His danger lies in that he knows both Arab/Muslim and Western cultures very well which lifts all barriers in communicating with his victims born and raised in Western/Muslim communities. In other words, he is one of us who turned against us so he knows our weakness and our strength. His statements and calls for Jihad are clear, based on a western-style rationalization unlike the vague and poetic Bin Laden speeches and the loud sectarian al-Qaeda in Iraq statements.

Al-Awlaki sent out a video message in November 2010 that there is no need for a Muslim to seek a special fatwa or consultation from a Muslim authority to kill Americans, “because fighting Satan does not require a fatwa or advice. They are Satan’s party and fighting them is the duty of this era.[9]” He is dissolving all nationalities and uniting all of his “students” under one identity as Muslims who need to be enlightened about the Western oppression to Islam and attempts to change Islam as it did to Christianity and Judaism.

The factors that help Awlaki spread his views are the intelligent young Muslims living in western communities and suffer a form of an identity crisis due to the lack of open and free communication with their parents. These young self-radicalized Muslims though brought up in the west still cling to habits from their original cultures such as the mixed respect and fear emotions of parents, seeking success to make parents proud, not debating seniors, being a proud Muslim yet not educated about Islam. When children fear to ask a question lest they would be ridiculed or reprimanded for thinking of such ideas, they tend to turn to the internet or a friend, where the high risk of learning immoral ideas and wrong patterns of thinking about one’s religious duties and one’s rights and duties as a human being. Self-radicalized individuals are difficult to track down, because these individuals tend to work not as a group, motivated by views of well-educated and charismatic rational radical speakers whom they do not necessarily meet in person. The power of the word and the means used to spread that word is what makes al-Awlaki dangerous both to the national security in general, and to the Muslim families living in the West in particular.


[1]Attorney General’s Blunt Warning on Terror Attacks,” ABC News December 21, 2010.

[2] Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be hiding among his tribe the Awlak in the south of Yemen in the Shabwa Province mountains, “Yemen orders troops to ‘forcibly arrest’ al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki,” CSMonitor, November 7, 2010.

[3] CNN World, “American-born cleric praised in al-Qaeda audio message,” May 16, 2010

[4]Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War,” NY Times April 4, 2008.

[5]Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan ‘is a hero’: Imam who preached to 9/11 hijackers in VA praises attack,” NY Daily News, November 9, 2009.

[6]Nigerian Man Indicted in Bombing Attempt,” CBS News January 6, 2010.

[7]Curse the judge, shout fanatics as the Muslim girl who knifed MP smiles as she gets life,” Daily Mail, November 5, 2010.

[8] Steven Stalinsky, “Part V: YouTube-The Internet’s primary and Rapidly Expanding Jihadi Base: One Year Later on YouTube-Anwar al-Awlaki’s presence Expands, … ”MEMRI December 11, 2010.

[9] Ana al-Muslim chat forum, http://www.muslm.net/vb/showthread.php?t=407810

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Wikileaks Part 2: Yemen’s al-Qaeda Policy

Much has been said in the past week about the potentially troubling diplomatic relations which will result from Wikileaks’ leaked State Department cables, but despite all the attention given to the Arab world’s rhetorical hatred of Iran, Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse and Russia’s Batman and Robin, the Yemen cables in particular could affect US national security more tangibly than any others. A recent series of foiled terror plots on US soil originating in Yemen have reinvigorated debate over Obama’s terrorism policy toward al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And while the leaked cable only confirms what we already knew about Yemen, including its eagerness for US aid (even if it is to be used in ways it was not intended) and the presence of US air strikes against al-Qaeda , how will the public release of these cables affect the United States, Yemen, their relationship and transnational actors who also have a stake in the region?

Middle Eastern governments have always tried to walk a fine line by cooperating with the US behind the scenes to avoid public backlash and Yemen is no exception. The most damning (and oft-quoted) element of the Yemen cables is President Saleh’s “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours” in reassurance to General Patreaus that Yemen is serious about helping the United States monitor and weed out AQAP. However, other parts of the cable confirm that Saleh may have other priorities on his mind such as nearly doubling US foreign assistance to the country and as American Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche implies, bolstering the Yemeni military: “Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters.  Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, ‘ease’ the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes…‘We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise.  Only against al-Qaeda,’ [Saleh continued].”

While Saleh gives the impression that he holds the same concerns as the United States, Yemen’s characteristic misuse of US military aid and “catch and release” terrorist policies reaffirm that Saleh has different priorities. Former Ambassador to Yemen William Rugh argues that “[Saleh’s] priority, however, is not al-Qaeda but dealing with discontent in the south; the bloody, ongoing rebellion in the north [Sa’ada]; and the complex array of tribal and local interests that threaten his leadership. Yemen’s sagging economy only galvanizes Salih’s critics.  At Washington’s insistence, al-Qaeda is on Salih’s list of priorities but he has other existential concerns that trump counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.”

However, with the release of confidential reports, Al-Qaeda may pose more of a threat to Saleh than he originally envisioned as public knowledge of US-Yemeni military cooperation may radicalize Yemenis against their president. Gregory Johnson, an expert on Yemen from Princeton University postulates just this, stating that “in some of the tribal areas where al-Qaida is really attempting to recruit people, having something like this where the president and his ministers are on the record talking about lying and deceiving parliament and the Yemeni public, I think it will have traction. Al-Qaida will be able to use it in the months to come.” If regime security is Saleh’s main concern, then somewhat ironically, he has been emboldening his opposition all along.

Whether news of the leaks and Saleh’s comments reach the Yemeni public remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that AQAP will use the leaks to further their own agenda. In the 1990s, Rugh argues that “Salih calculated that strong action against al-Qaeda and its tribal allies might strengthen his domestic opponents and feared that open cooperation with the United States would validate al-Qaeda’s narrative that Salih was an anti-Muslim American puppet.” This same fear exists today and presents a deterrent to full collaboration with the US, however with al-Qaeda armed with the newly leaked knowledge and poised to act, the Yemeni government, which denies the reports, may find that fighting al-Qaeda is actually in its best interest and that of its most powerful ally.

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Qatari Law Will Test Media Freedom

[Strategic Social analyst Jennifer Lambert's recent publication for the Carnegie Endowment]

After years of trying to differentiate Qatar from its neighbors by cultivating a modern and more liberal image, the Qatari government is set to unveil a new media law by the end of this year that has some journalists worried it will restrict certain types of speech. Already, Qatar’s ranking within the Reporter Without Borders press freedom index has fallen; its current rank of 121 out of 178 countries surveyed is its lowest since being included in the survey in 2003. If the new law imposes fines or imprisonment for certain types of speech, journalists will surely protest and efforts to differentiate Qatar from its neighbors will suffer a serious setback. Read the full story here.

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