Source: Guardian By Ian Black, Middle East editor, Hugh Macleod in Sana'a.
His name is synonymous with fiery internet sermons, angry calls for Muslims to rise up in jihad. For Americans, the militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki has now emerged as a key link between the most serious "homegrown" terrorist plots on US soil – including last week's abortive car bombing in New York's Times Square.
Faisal Shahzad, who was charged in New York on Tuesday with driving the bomb to Times Square and described yesterday by General David Petraeus of US central command as a "lone wolf" has reportedly told law enforcement officials that he was a "fan and a follower" of Awlaki. US officials say the militant preacher is seen as a highly influential figure in mobilising English-speaking Muslims to plan al-Qaida-style atrocities.
Awlaki, 39, and born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, was linked to Major Nidal Hasan, the US army major charged in the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last November. His name surfaced again in the case of the Christmas Day "underpants bomber", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, who claimed the airliner attack over Detroit on behalf of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an active "franchise" of Osama bin Laden's organisation.
Awlaki has degrees in engineering and education from American universities. Despite not having a formal Islamic education, he was an imam in San Diego and Virginia and was questioned by the FBI about links with three of the 9/11 hijackers. In recent years his sermons and recordings have been found on the computers of terrorist suspects in the US, Canada and Britain. Between 2002 and 2004, he spent time in the UK, living in Leicester and preaching at events sponsored by Salafi and Islamist organisations.
US counter-terrorist officials date his radical phase from when he left Britain for Yemen, where he was imprisoned. Last month the US government announced that he was being officially targeted for capture or assassination after he expressed open support for AQAP and called for "jihad" against the US.
He also described Abdulmutallab as his student, adding: "I support what he did after seeing my brothers being killed in Palestine for more than 60 years, and others being killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan." US raids on al-Qaida targets in Yemen preceded the Detroit incident.
One expert said today: "Awlaki's story is one of his evolution from being a moderate and respected Islamic scholar to an extremist, then a radicaliser, to an active spokesperson for al-Qaida. That's why he now has [US] drones after him."
Awlaki's appeal to disaffected Muslims combines his Islamic learning with deft use of new media such as blogs and websites, free and easily downloadable lectures and, above all, "viral" marketing – both online and through the more traditional method of copying and distributing cheap CDs outside mosques and community centres.
"Awlaki has a huge internet following among Muslims all over the world," said Faisal Gazi, a British Muslim blogger. "His sermons, delivered in word perfect English and Arabic, are downloaded and shared by vast numbers of people in the Middle East and in the west."
Last November researchers found that Awlaki had some 2,000 videos on YouTube, many of them from his DVD series on the lives of Islamic prophets, work that shows his flair for accessibility and credibility.
Awlaki is currently believed to be hiding in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa with AQAP leaders, protected by the heavily armed Awaliq tribe: this poses a dilemma for the Yemeni government, which is under heavy pressure from the US to fight al-Qaida, but painfully aware of local constraints, and especially the danger of being seen as too close to Washington.
In February, the US earmarked $150m in security assistance for Yemen, up from $67m last year, including funding for repairing old helicopters and providing new ones capable of flying special forces into remote areas.
Until recently President Ali Abdullah Salih had refused to commit to hunting down Awlaki, but has changed tack. "Awlaki is now being pursued by Yemeni security forces," the foreign minister, Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi, said. "But what is needed is for capabilities to be given to Yemen's security forces to pursue him and other terrorists in the country."
Western governments often talk of the dangers of Yemen's "ungoverned spaces", but Sana'a insists it must be left to decide how to deal with al-Qaida, which is far from the most serious problem facing the Arab world's poorest country."The tribal system is part of the government's means of ensuring that terrorists are not given safe haven in their areas," Qirbi said.
"The problem is how do they perceive the government of Yemen dealing with terrorists? They object to external influence in confronting al Qaida and this why Yemen has always stated that fighting al Qaida should be the responsibility of the Yemeni government and security forces.
This is the way we ensure people in Yemen and tribal people and their leaders will back the efforts to combat al-Qaida."