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,


Shia JFM Creates Graphic Tribute to “The Lions of the Shia Resistance”

Without saying a word, a pro-Shia militant group has asserted that Shia groups are the soldiers of Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shia Islam after the Prophet Muhammad himself.  A posting to an Iraqi Shia militant web forum shows footage of the “Great Lion” Aslan, the central character from the 2005 Walt Disney Movie The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (based on the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), side-by-side with logos of two militant Shia groups, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq. It’s ironic that the creator chose Aslan to represent the Imam Ali, as The Chronicles of Narnia contain a significant amount of Christian symbolism and parallels to Christian scripture.  In fact, the Aslan character is thought by some to represent Jesus Christ.  Regardless, by combining the images of Aslan the Lion with the logos of these two groups, the creator of the graphic is declaring them soldiers of the Imam Ali, as fierce and dangerous to their enemies as he.  Further, the creator is saying that primary mission of these militant groups, defeating the US military in Iraq, is a holy one blessed by Imam Ali himself.

Depiction of Imam Ali accompanied by a lion

The lion has special significance in Shia Islam because of its association with the Imam Ali.  During his lifetime, Imam Ali was given the nickname of “Haydar,” meaning “Lion,” and was often referred to as “The Lion” or “The Lion of Allah.”  Because of this association, Imam Ali is often accompanied by a lion in graphical representations, or depicted as a lion himself.  Shia militant groups in Iraq, like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, frequently refer to their fighters as “the Lions of the Shia Islamic Resistance.”[1] Two of the most notorious Shia militant groups in Iraq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are suspected of being offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was officially disbanded by the Shia cleric in 2008.  Both groups are thought to have received support from Iran and/or the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah and have conducted attacks against US military forces in Iraq.  Kata’ib Hizbollah has even been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department.

A lion depicted with a body of calligraphic invocations to Allah

Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups occasionally compare their fighters to lions as well.  For example, when a group like the Islamic State of Iraq[2] claims to have conducted a suicide bombing attack, they may claim responsibility with a reference to the lion, saying that the attack was carried out by the “brave Lions of the Islamic State of Iraq.”  However, when Sunni groups make such claims, their comparisons lack the religious significance that they hold for Shia groups.  The Sunni comparison comes as a reference to the lion’s ferocity, strength, and reputation as a top predator, not as an association with a holy figure.

The Lion Imam Ali T-Shirt design, sold by Islamic Artistic Design

The association between Imam Ali and the lion is so strong that it often appears in popular culture.  For example, in this YouTube video, footage of an actor portraying Imam Ali on horseback chasing down an enemy is interspersed with footage of a lion chasing down another animal.  In another example, a clever and entrepreneurial group of artists has designed a T-shirt for sale online showing a lion with facial features represented by intricate Arabic calligraphy, to include the word “Ali” in the center of his face.

Yet another example of this association permeating popular culture is a common Iraqi joke.  Intended as a commentary on the current state of Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence in Iraq today, this joke is a bit of gallows humor that further demonstrates the strong connection that Shia Muslims make between Imam Ali and lions:

An Iraqi lion arrives in the United States to apply for asylum.  When immigration officials ask the lion for his reason for requesting asylum, he shows them a picture of Imam Ali with a lion.

“You see?” says the lion,“the Sunnis are after me because they have seen pictures of me with Imam Ali!”

[1] The names of these two groups are translated as “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq” and “The League of Righteous People.”

[2] The Islamic State of Iraq is a political front organization used by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq to issue public statements on behalf of the group.


IO 2.0 in the Middle East

Many viewers around the world were transfixed last week when news broke that the Israeli Defense Forces had attacked a flotilla of 6 ships owned and manned by the Turkish NGO, The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), killing nine people and injuring dozens. From the start, the pro-Palestinian activists had made clear that their intentions were to attempt to provoke Israel into an overreaction by trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, thereby generating international condemnation of Israel’s actions and growing awareness of the blockade of Gaza.

The geopolitical ramifications of the attack and its consequences, for Israel, Turkey, the United States, and the rest of the region, have been parsed to death. Nevertheless, the methods used by Israel and the IHH in the immediate aftermath of the attack offer lessons on IO and, as Mountain Runner likes to call it, “Now Media.”

As the New York Times explained, both the Israelis and the people on board the ships were ready for an information war: the IDF came with its own video cameras, and several journalists were embedded with the pro-Palestinian activists. Naturally, the IDF posted videos on YouTube defending its version of how events unfolded during the attacks on the ships. The videos were heavily edited and featured narrations and annotations to carefully illustrate the evidence that the video’s authors were trying to promote. The IHH was actually videocasting live on board the ships using the online video streaming service, livestream.

Unexpectedly, Israel’s use of YouTube for promoting its videos drew heavy criticism. The crisis’ audience was unsatisfied with the edited, censored videos, and called on Israel to release the full, time-stamped video so that viewers could draw their own conclusions.  The IDF tried to use YouTube’s ability to reach a large audience instantly partially backfired.  With new technologies come new expectations, and given the ease of posting video content online, viewers have placed new demands on that content.