U.S. ter­ror at­tacks have a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor

In­ves­ti­ga­tors say in­ci­dents were all in­spired by An­war al-Awlaki

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Larry Neumeister

NEW YORK >> Five years af­ter An­war al-Awlaki was killed by an Amer­i­can drone strike, he keeps in­spir­ing acts of ter­ror.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors say a bomb that rocked New York a week ago, in­jur­ing more than two dozen peo­ple, was the lat­est in a long line of in­ci­dents in which the at­tack­ers were in­spired by alAwlaki, an Amer­i­can imam who be­came an al-Qaida pro­pa­gan­dist.

Fed­eral ter­ror­ism charges against the bomb­ing sus­pect, Ah­mad Khan Ra­hami, say a blood­stained note­book — found on him af­ter he en­gaged in a shootout with po­lice in New Jersey and was ar­rested — in­cluded pas­sages prais­ing al-Awlaki. And Ra­hami’s father has said he went to the FBI two years ago in part be­cause he was con­cerned about his son’s ad­mi­ra­tion for al-Awlaki and the time he spent watch­ing his videos ad­vo­cat­ing ji­had, or holy war.

Ter­ror ex­perts say alAwlaki re­mains a dan­ger­ous in­citer of home­grown ter­ror. He spoke Amer­i­can English, and his ser­mons are widely avail­able on­line. And since he was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011, mar­tyred in the eyes of fol­low­ers, those ma­te­ri­als take on an al­most mythic qual­ity. His pri­mary mes­sage: Mus­lims are un­der at­tack and have a duty to carry out at­tacks on non-be­liev­ers at home.

Among the at­tack­ers who in­ves­ti­ga­tors and ter­ror ex­perts say were in­spired by al-Awlaki and his videos: the cou­ple who car­ried out the San Bernardino, Cal­i­for­nia, shoot­ings, which left 14 peo­ple dead in De­cem­ber, and the broth­ers be­hind the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing, which killed three peo­ple and in­jured more than 260 oth­ers in April 2013.

“The hor­rific acts of vi­o­lence they advertise are just a twisted form of ad­ver­tis­ing,” said Zachary Gold­man, co-founder of the New York Univer­sity Cen­ter for Cy­ber Se­cu­rity.

He said al-Awlaki was par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive be­cause of “his ideas and per­ni­cious way of of­fer­ing com­fort to those in need of it at the same time as he poi­sons them.”

Pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees Don­ald Trump, a Repub­li­can, and Hil­lary Clin­ton, a Demo­crat, have called for cur­tail­ing the abil­ity of ter­ror­ists to pro­mote their views on the in­ter­net. Trump has sug­gested shut­ting down the web in war­rav­aged na­tions over­run by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists. Clin­ton has sug­gested ap­peal­ing to so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies to take rad­i­cal speech off­line.

The di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Na­tional Se­cu­rity at Ford­ham Law School, Karen Green­berg, said a lively dis­cus­sion is un­der­way among pub­lic of­fi­cials and those in the pri­vate sec­tor to “find a way to take searches for ji­hadist pro­pa­ganda and de­flect it to­ward a counter-nar­ra­tive.”

She noted her cen­ter’s study of the first 101 Is­lamic State group cases in fed­eral courts, up­dated through June, showed more than 25 per­cent of the cases’ court records con­tained ref­er­ences to al-Awlaki’s in­flu­ence. Ref­er­ences to Osama bin Laden, founder of the ter­ror or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks, barely topped 10 per­cent.

Au­thor­i­ties have said al-Awlaki knew two of the Sept. 11 hi­jack­ers when he was the imam of a Falls Church, Vir­ginia, mosque but didn’t seem a threat, even scor­ing an in­vite to lunch at the Pen­tagon as part of a mod­er­ate Muslim out­reach pro­gram af­ter the 2001 at­tacks.

But al-Awlaki’s es­says and speeches went from pro­vid­ing en­cour­age­ment to would-be mil­i­tant fighters to play­ing an op­er­a­tional role for al-Qaida, prompt­ing Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to add him to the gov­ern­ment’s list of wanted ter­ror sus­pects.

By 2007, an in­for­mant at a New Jersey trial tes­ti­fied, one of five for­eign­born Mus­lims said he was ready to at­tack sol­diers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, af­ter watch­ing a video of an alAwlaki lec­ture he con­sid­ered a reli­gious de­cree to at­tack Amer­i­can sol­diers.

Al-Awlaki was email­ing Maj. Ni­dal Ma­lik Hasan, an Army psy­chi­a­trist, be­fore his 2009 shoot­ing at­tack at Fort Hood, Texas, which killed 13 peo­ple.

Au­thor­i­ties said al-Awlaki also worked with Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab, a re­cruit to al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, who tried un­suc­cess­fully to blow up a Detroit-bound air­liner on Christ­mas Day 2009 with ex­plo­sives in his un­der­wear.

In 2010, YouTube re­moved videos in which alAwlaki called for holy war, say­ing they vi­o­lated its guide­lines pro­hibit­ing “in­cite­ment to com­mit vi­o­lent acts.” In one 45-minute video, al-Awlaki said U.S. deaths are jus­ti­fied and en­cour­aged, cit­ing what he called U.S. in­ten­tional killing of Muslim civil­ians in Iraq, Afghanistan and else­where.

“He broke bad,” said John Pis­tole, for­mer FBI deputy di­rec­tor and for­mer di­rec­tor of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “He lived here, was born here. He was ob­vi­ously very per­sua­sive, a very ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tor.”

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union said it has seen lots of pres­sure put on tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as it tries to limit speech on plat­forms re­lated to ter­ror­ism. But re­strict­ing or re­mov­ing speech con­sid­ered of­fen­sive or dan­ger­ous doesn’t pro­tect peo­ple, said Hugh Handey­side, a staff at­tor­ney with the ACLU’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Project.

“Peo­ple can’t re­spond to it or con­demn it,” he said. “It drives the speech un­der­ground.”

Try­ing to re­move it, Handey­side added, “is ul­ti­mately fu­tile and pos­si­bly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

Imam An­war al-Awlaki

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