New York Times National Security Reporter Scott Shane gave a featured talk at the University of New Mexico Global and National Security Spring Symposium Tuesday. His talk, “The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki: an American terrorist and blowback in the war on terror” outlined the unexpected problem the U.S. government faced after Al-Awlaki was targeted and killed in a drone attack in September of 2011.
Much of the information Shane discussed is available in his book, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President and the Rise of the Drone.”
He told the symposium audience that U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly found that people who committed acts of violence in the United States, including the Boston Marathon bombers, and Syad Rizwan Farook, the man involved in the San Bernardino shootings had listened to video recordings of al-Awlaki.
Al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces, N.M. where his father attended graduate school at New Mexico State University. When he was seven his family moved back to Yemen, where Al-Awlaki attended school.
He eventually was sent to college in the United States to become an engineer. Al-Awlaki graduated with a degree in engineering, but chose to become an Imam, preaching at mosques in Denver, Colorado, San Diego, California and Falls Church, Md.
The FBI became interested in Al-Awlaki after agents learned two of the men involved in hijacking airliners on Sept. 11, 2001 had attended the mosque where he was preaching. After watching him for several months, agents learned he regularly hired prostitutes a practice frowned on in Islam.
Al-Awlaki received a tip that he was being watched by the FBI and abruptly left the United States and returned to Yeman where his extended family lived, and where he eventually became more radical in his teachings.
Al-Awlaki proved to be very entrepreneurial, persuading family members to sell cassette recordings of his sermons outside mosques. He recorded an extensive set of lectures on the life of the prophet Mohammad, which became available on social media channels. He built a social media following and uploaded some sermons to YouTube. His admirers’ added video and music mash-ups to accompany his spoken words.
The close association between the online teachings of Al-Awlaki and terrorists made Al-Awlaki a target as the U.S. sought to silence his encouragement of jihad.
Shane told the audience that when al-Awaki was killed there were about 40,000 sites that mentioned him on the Internet. Today, four years after his death, a search result reveals more than 71,000 sites with information about him or his teachings.
The U.S. government has considered trying to eliminate mention of al-Awlaki on the Internet, but no one believes that could be done successfully, Shane said. Another problem is that would directly violate American principles of free speech.
Shane said the U.S. government is now in the very uncomfortable position of trying to figure out how to permanently silence a man who, because he could speak English well and communicate in a personally compelling way, proved to be extremely dangerous. His communication skills continue to be a valuable tool in recruiting young people to a life of terrorist activity.
Shane said, “The U.S. was able to kill the messenger, but has been unable to kill the message.”
Shane said there is now some uncertainty about how to proceed in the war on terror because communication is such an important element and there is no entity within the U.S. government that has the kind of credibility to dissuade individuals from joining Isis or deciding to commit a violent act.
This is the kind of problem that students who seek a career in national and global security may encounter. Several dozen students stopped in to hear portions of the symposium in the Student Union Building on campus.
The symposium was meant to give the UNM community a chance to listen to experts in security and to allow UNM students an opportunity to explore career opportunities in global and national security. It is sponsored by the National Security Studies Program at UNM.