Yemeni cleric al Awlaki is greatest threat to U.S.

Published 14 February 2011

Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the House Homeland Security Committee that the mastermind behind al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the greatest threat to the United States; Anwar al Awlaki, the head of AQAP, is a dual U.S.—Yemeni citizen and has been linked to several attacks on the United States including the failed Christmas Day 2009 attack, the Fort Hood shootings, and the failed car bomb in Times Square, New York; counter-terrorism officials are particularly worried about al Awlaki because he is one of a few English-speaking radical clerics who can connect to young Muslims in America

Screen capture of al Awlaki internet video // Source: pbs.org

Before the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently said that the mastermind behind al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the greatest threat to the United States.

Anwar al Awlaki, the head of AQAP, is a dual U.S.–Yemeni citizen and has been linked to several attacks on the United States including the failed attempt to bomb an airplane on Christmas Day 2009, the fatal shootings at Fort Hood that left thirteen dead, and the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, New York. Counter-terrorism officials are particularly worried about al Awlaki because he is one of a few English-speaking radical clerics who can connect to young Muslims in America.

Leiter said that al Awlakiwas probably the best at radicalizing Americans through the Internet.

Al Awlaki is the most well-known English-speaking ideologue who is speaking directly to folks here in the homeland,” Leiter said. “I think al Awlaki probably does have the greatest audience on the Internet, so in that sense he is the most important” terrorist on the Web.”

His lectures, posted online, have been widely circulated and were largely responsible for radicalizing Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, the perpetrator of the attempted Times Square car bombing.

Al Awlaki has strong ties to the United States as he was born in New Mexico, did doctoral work at George Washington University, and served as an imam at a mosque in Virginia before fleeing to his parents’ home in Yemen in 2004.

DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, also present at the hearing, worried about the increasing trend of al Qaeda recruiting Americans.

She said, “We have seen the rise of a number of terrorist groups inspired by al Qaeda ideology … that are placing a growing emphasis on recruiting individuals who are either Westerners, or have connections to the West but who do not have strong links to terrorist groups and are thus more difficult for authorities to identify.”

Representative Peter King (R–New York), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, agreed saying, “Homegrown radicalization is a growing threat and one we cannot ignore.”

He added, “This shift, as far as I’m concerned is a game changer that presents a serious challenge to law enforcement and the intelligence community.”

King is currently preparing to hold hearings on the radicalization of the American Muslim community.

The proposed hearings have drawn criticism for singling out American Muslims. Critics, including the ranking Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson (D–Mississippi), on the committee, have urged King to expand the hearings to all ethnic groups and not just Muslims.

Napolitano also recognized that the U.S. government needed to improve its ability to counter the terrorists increasing use of the Internet to recruit and radicalize people.

She said, “One area that is really not up to bat today but is one we need to watch out for is the whole world of cyber and cyber security and how that is going to interconnect with the terrorist threat.”

Leiter explained that highly sophisticated English websites have emerged to radicalize and guide extremists on how carry out their own attacks in the United States.

He added, “English-language Web forums also foster a sense of community and further indoctrinate new recruits, both of which can lead to increased levels of violent activity.”

AQAP currently publishes an online propaganda magazine called Inspire. According to Leiter, the November edition “glorified” AQAP’s failed attempts to detonate bombs, disguised as printer cartridges, aboard a cargo plane.

In a controversial move, last April President Obama authorized the placement of al Awlaki on the CIA’s hit list.

Civil rights groups were particularly concerned because al Awlaki is an American citizen.

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