He is the new Osama bin Laden

Last Updated: Nov 18, 2010, 16:53 PM IST

Kamna Arora

"Do not seek any permission when it comes to the killing of Americans. Fighting the devil doesn`t need a fatwa (religious edict).” In a video released on November 08, Anwar al-Awlaki boldly called on his followers to murder Americans.

Speaking in Arabic, the bespectacled orator insisted: "This is a battle of Moses and pharaoh. This is a battle of righteousness and falsehood."

Hiding in the southern mountains of Yemen, the US-born radical Islamic cleric has been described in the West as a Yemeni Osama bin Laden. In April, US Congresswoman Jane Harman called al-Awlaki “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us”. The preacher is the first American on the CIA`s kill or capture list.

In September, director-general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, called al-Awlaki as the West’s Public Enemy No 1. “The operational involvement of Yemen-based preacher Anwar al-Awlaki with al Qaeda is of particular concern given his wide circle of adherents in the West, including in the UK.”

Who is Anwar al-Awlaki?

Al-Awlaki was born in the southern US state of New Mexico in April 1971. His father, Nasser, received his Master’s Degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University. Notably, Nasser al-Awlaki later served as Yemen’s agriculture minister and president of Sana’a University. Al-Awlaki was seven when his family returned to Yemen.

Later, Al-Awlaki became a US citizen. He graduated in civil engineering from Colorado State University and holds a Master’s Degree in educational leadership from San Diego State University.

In 1994, he got married to his cousin from Yemen.

He became an imam at a mosque in Fort Collins, Colorado, before returning to San Diego in 1996. Here he took charge of the city`s Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque for four years.

According to reports, two future 9/11 hijackers, namely Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, used to attend his sermons.

Al-Awlaki then moved to the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church in early 2001. Al-Hazmi and a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour, used to attend the mosque.

In 2002, he left the United States and made the United Kingdom his new base for giving lectures to Muslim youth. In early 2004, he returned to Yemen.

Soon, he managed to get the post of a lecturer at al-Iman University in Sana’a, headed by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani. Notably, the US Treasury Department and the UN have designated al-Zindani a "specially designated global terrorist" for his suspected links with al Qaeda.

Al-Awlaki shot to fame after his preaching was linked to a US Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, on November 05, 2009. Following the shootings, al-Awlaki called Major Hasan a hero.

"My support to the operation was because the operation brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one," he told al-Jazeera.

Al-Awlaki is believed to be the spiritual mentor of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The radical cleric’s teachings were then linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet on December 25, 2009.

In May 2010, al-Awlaki was mentioned by Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. According to an American official, the Pakistani-American man said he was inspired by the violent rhetoric of al-Awlaki.

US anti-terrorism agents also believe the preacher was operationally linked to recently foiled mail bomb plot.

The cleric has spread his ideas through Internet as well. Although YouTube recently removed some of his sermons, yet many of his other English-language videos still remain accessible. He is said to be the leading English-language al Qaeda propagandist.

Of late, a report claimed al-Awlaki met US’ top military personnel at a luncheon at the Pentagon just months after September 11 attacks. According to Fox News, some documents state that al-Awlaki was taken to the US Department of Defence`s headquarters as part of the military`s outreach programme to the Muslim community.

US pressure

In 2006, Yemeni authorities imprisoned al-Awlaki but released him 18 months later.

The Obama administration may soon deploy more Predator drones in Yemen to strike against al Qaeda in the country. The United States has even committed nearly USD 150 million to build Yemeni counter-terrorism capacity.

US President Barack Obama has approved the targeted assassination of al-Awlaki. Moreover, a judge in Yemen recently ordered the police to nab the radical preacher "dead or alive". He was charged – in absentia – with inciting violence against foreigners.

However, critics called al-Awlaki’s trial as a “game”, just to conciliate the US. The Yemeni government denies this.

Al-Awlaki is currently thought to be hiding in the arid, mountainous southern province of Shabwa. He belongs to powerful Awalik tribe, which is believed to be sheltering the preacher. Capturing him will surely prove to be a gigantic task for the forces since they must fear backlash from the tribe.

The US needs to defeat al-Awlaki and for doing this, it needs to look for ways to connect with local Yemenis directly affected by AQAP, so that it can isolate the movement.