In combating terrorism, the intelligence and justice communities face new threats from internet based recruitment and American based radicals.
One of the most infamous and illusive terrorists, Anwar al-Awlaki, exemplifies the toxic marriage of the internet and the sentiments of the Jihadist fringe.
Awlaki is a dual citizen of America and Yemen. He was an Imam who had a following among and relationship with some of the 9/11 hijackers. The Fort Hood gunman was also known to follow Awlaki’s sermons. Awlaki has publicly praised suicide bombers, and in 2002, he was investigated for sending money to terror suspects subsequently being placed on the federal terror watch list. A warrant for Awlaki’s arrest was issued in 2002 for passport fraud. Awlaki was arrested at JFK Airport in October of 2002, but a FBI agent later ordered Awlaki’s release. Awlaki is known to post online lectures which some deem a recruiting tool for Jihad. Awlaki’s technological savvy and command of English make him a powerful recruiter of Muslims in America and the United Kingdom. President Barack Obama placed Awlaki on the CIA Target list to be killed in 2010 with encouragement from the National Security Council. Awlaki is currently a regional commander with Al Qaeda.
Catherine Herridge, a national correspondent at Fox News, explores the future of American terror prevention, the history of the problem, and practitioners of terror who use the web to recruit fellow terrorists thus defy common notions of radical Islam in her book The Next Wave which she discussed at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation June 28th.
As Herridge says, “the American in Yemen is really the leader of a new generation. I call it Al Qaeda 2.0, and these people are digital Jihadists. They’re people who lived here or were born here and know how to use our technology against us.”
Where he is today is really not much of a surprise. It’s not a surprise at all.
Terror sentiments and web based recruitment have proven themselves to be a touchy subject with many public officials.
“When I wrote that part of the book about the Pentagon lunch, it really made me feel a little sick because his (Awlaki) contacts were with three of the five guys who hit that building. So here is a guy part of an outreach to moderate Muslims, and he’s a guest speaker on Islam in an executive dining room in a building his guys tried to destroy. It’s like a thief returning to the scene of a crime.”
With nobody examining people, like American born Awlaki, who become involved in terrorism, American born radicals are overlooked and deemed part of the moderate Muslim majority. If we fail to acknowledge America as a terror recruitment ground and the web as a recruitment conduit, the American born terrorist may become ubiquitous. This ignorance is playing to Al Qaeda’s hand.
“Back in 2006 and 2007, Al Qaeda decided to try and recruit westerners and American citizens because they saw we were very focused on people from the Middle East and from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they understood that it would be harder to put our own people under the microscope because of the protections American citizens have.”
In dealing with the modern terror threat presented by Al Qaeda 2.0, Herridge comments that we may have to live with a threat of terror as terrorists plot and recruit on the web. Herridge talks about a discussion with a former CIA Director which she includes in her book. “To have perfect security or to really reduce the risk we’re going to have to give up a lot of our privileges as Americans so to speak. We’re going to have the government more and in our business. And he said I don’t think we want to go there. I think we need to say to people we’re going to have a certain amount of risk and some things are going to get through. But that’s kinda the price we have to pay in order to maintain the way that we live ant the freedoms that we value because one of the goals of these groups is to force us to dramatically change the way we live and give up the freedoms that make us different than other countries."
With American born terrorists like Awlaki and Jihad Jane reaching the public’s awareness, some question how Americans can be radicalized to join in radical jihad.
Herridge explains, “they get on the web and into chat rooms with very like minded people. If you think the moon is made of green cheese and the five people you’re dealing with on the web all feel the same way too. Pretty soon everyone else in the world is wrong. So there is kinda this revving up that you see. The message on the web is very insidious…He ( Awlaki) is really good. He is really smooth and really smart, and he really understands propaganda and how to speak to Americans.”
Herridge went on to say “I think the misconception is that this guy is recruiting people. He’s not reaching out and tapping people. They’re reaching up and grabbing for him.”
“This guy successfully breaks down the American cultural identity for these people and makes them feel like victims and that this is justified. That it really is an attack on them.”
When asked do you believe a congressional or internal department investigation into the mishandling of Awlaki is warranted? Herridge responded, “I would like to see some congressional hearings.”
Herridge cites a letter written by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) to the Director of the FBI requesting answers on the 2002 arrest and release of Awlaki allowing him to further involve himself in terrorism
Herridge went on to say, “I think we want to have an answer to this not because we are trying to blame somebody nine years after the fact. I think we need to understand what went wrong, so we don’t repeat it again.”
Jerad McHenry is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying political science and journalism interested in grassroots, advocacy, policy, and media relations.