By Catherine Herridge
Crown Forum, 2011
272 pp. $25.00
In the final years of his life, Osama bin Laden served mainly as an inspirational figure rather than an actual commander. He counseled his faithful that jihad was an individual duty for every Muslim capable of going to war. Ominously, a small but notable number of Americans have answered his call. In fact, American recruits are highly valued by al Qaeda for their passports and abilities to blend in with American society. In her book The Next Wave, Catherine Herridge explores the travails of prominent American jihadists. She draws on her 10-year experience reporting on the war on terror and cites numerous military and intelligence officials and analysts.
The chief focus of her book is Anwar al-Awlaki, who played an important operational role for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and reached out to several American jihadists. For instance, al-Awlaki exerted a strong influence over Major Nidal Malik Hasan, with whom he exchanged several emails. On November 5, 2009, the Virginia-born Muslim and U.S. Army psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people and left 38 wounded. On Christmas day of that same year, a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutuallab, attempted to ignite an explosive device that was sewn into his underwear while he traveled on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. According to Herridge’s sources, al-Awlaki had coached the Nigerian on security and surveillance in Western countries and was the middleman between Abdulmutuallab and the bombmaker. Al-Awlaki’s sermons also inspired Faisal Shahzad, a seemingly upright and assimilated middle-class computer technician and U.S. citizen who lived in Connecticut but was born in Pakistan. Shahzad attempted to detonate three bombs in an SUV parked in the heart of Times Square in New York City in May 2010. Once characterized as the “bin Laden of the Internet,” Al-Awlaki’s pronouncements have been broadcast on jihadist Web sites and YouTube. Fluent in both Arabic and English, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Islam and was regarded as a gifted speaker who was capable of moving his listeners to action.
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico, where his father pursued his higher education. Sometime in 1977 or 1978, the family returned to Yemen, where the senior al-Awlaki went on to become a well-respected and well-connected government minister. In 1991, Anwar al-Awlaki returned to America to pursue a degree in engineering at Colorado State University. He misrepresented himself as foreign born, presumably to receive a $20,000 scholarship from the U.S. State Department in a program intended for foreign students. On his Social Security application, he claimed that he was born in Yemen and was issued a new Social Security number. When he renewed his passport in 1993, however, he presented his birth certificate, which indicated that he was actually born in New Mexico, but he used his fraudulently obtained Social Security number.
After graduation, al-Awlaki moved to San Diego where he became the imam of the al-Rabat Mosque. While there in the late 1990s, he met regularly with Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, two of the 9/11 hijackers. Herridge avers that al-Awlaki was part of a support cell sent to the United States prior to 9/11. Sometime in 2001, he moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where he became the imam of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center and crossed paths with Hani Hanjour who, along with Hazmi and al-Midhar, hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents took an immediate interest in al-Awlaki and interviewed him at least four times in the first 8 days after the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, the unflappable and mediagenic al-Awlaki was often the go-to guy for sound bites on local and national broadcasts for the Muslim-American perspective on 9/11. In fact, Herridge discovered that al-Awlaki had participated in a Pentagon outreach program to moderate Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Despite his veneer of moderation, al-Awlaki continued to consort with Muslim radicals and came under increasing scrutiny by Federal investigators. In June 2002, a Denver Federal judge issued an arrest warrant for al-Awlaki based on his fraudulent misrepresentations on his Social Security and passport applications in the early 1990s. He left the United States sometime in 2002 but returned on October 10. When he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport, Federal agents apprehended and held him but quickly released him because on that same day the Federal judge had rescinded his arrest warrant. According to the official explanation, prosecutors did not believe there was enough evidence to convict him of a crime; moreover, the 10-year statute of limitations for lying to the Social Security Administration had expired. Before the end of 2002, al-Awlaki left the United States for the last time, after which he went first to England and then to Yemen.
For her part, Herridge believes the government has not entirely come clean on al-Awlaki. During her investigation, she noted that the mere mention of his name to a government official can be a conversation killer. She questions why the FBI instructed customs agents to allow al-Awlaki to reenter the country in October 2002. The decision, she concludes, must have come from higher up. Why then, she muses, did the FBI want al-Awlaki in the country? She finds it odd that the decision to rescind his arrest warrant came the same day he returned to the country. Adding further suspicion is the fact that the U.S. Government has not released all of the intercepted emails between the Fort Hood killer and al-Awlaki.
As Herridge explains, through new media, offbeat loners can be self-radicalized and become dedicated terrorists. She characterized al-Awlaki as a “virtual recruiter” who almost never met his jihadists in person. In the final months of his life, al-Awlaki encouraged American jihadists to launch lone wolf attacks on their own initiatives. In addition to his propaganda, U.S. officials believed that al-Awlaki was involved in the operational planning of terrorist attacks. After his return to Yemen, he skillfully used his connections to expand his influence in the jihadist movement. Despite his U.S. citizenship, in the spring of 2010 he was placed on the Central Intelligence Agency kill-or-capture list. On September 30, 2011, two Predator drones fired Hellfire missiles at a vehicle carrying al-Awlaki and other suspected al Qaeda operatives as they traveled on a road in Yemen’s al-Jawf Province. Shortly thereafter, Yemen’s defense ministry announced that al-Awlaki was killed.
Herridge’s book is interesting but leaves many questions about al-Awlaki unanswered. Moreover, she left out many important details about al-Awlaki’s activities after he left America, including his stay in England and his role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while in Yemen. Surprisingly, Herridge made no mention of another prominent American jihadist, Adam Gadahn (also known as “Azzam the American”), arguably the most recognized American al Qaeda spokesman on the Internet. The young California native and convert to Islam is believed to be an important member of al Qaeda’s media committee—as Sahab—under whose direction the organization’s propaganda has become more sophisticated. In recent years, Gadahn has emerged as somewhat of an Internet celebrity on Web sites such as YouTube.
Still, Herridge provides an interesting journalistic study of the radicalization of American jihadists and their connections to their ideological brethren overseas. As such, it will be of interest to students of terrorism and political extremism. JFQ