< Al Qaeda Loses Its English Voice

Transcript

Friday, October 07, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Last Friday in Yemen a US drone strike killed two Al Qaeda targets, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. The two were both unique figures in Al Qaeda. First, they were both Americans. Secondly, their command of English meant they could communicate directly with would-be radicals in the West.

Khan was reportedly the editor of Inspire, the Al Qaeda English language magazine. Al-Awlaki worked in front of the camera through Internet sermons the government believed were designed to inspire militancy among Muslims here at home.

Jarret Brachman is the author of Global Jihadism:  Theory and Practice and has closely followed the way that al-Awlaki and Khan have gotten their message to the West. Jarret, welcome back to OTM.

JARRET BRACHMAN:

Thanks.

BOB GARFIELD:

Are the deaths of these men a big blow to Al Qaeda?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

It's devastating. I mean, al-Awlaki and Samir Khan had revolutionized the way that Al Qaeda was able to reach out and touch the West. And there's really nobody left on the bench that has what's taken those two decades of work to develop. For a long time a lot of kids in the West who’ve supported Al Qaeda still felt like they were playing second fiddle to their Arabic counterparts.

They didn’t have a lot of access or forums that they could kind of spout off in, and they weren’t really valued within the Al Qaeda global movement. Awlaki and Samir Khan changed all that.

BOB GARFIELD:

And what are they credited with achieving?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

They were able to inspire and direct numerous attacks. We have direct email correspondence between Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter. We have cases of, say, an individual who just watched a al-Awlaki’s  videos and took it upon herself to go out and stab a British member of Parliament. We have directed attacks that Awlaki was clearly involved with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged, uh, underwear bomber, and, and numerous other examples of those kinds of, you know, operational strikes.

BOB GARFIELD:

They came to these roles through very different paths. Tell me how they got to be where they got to be.

JARRET BRACHMAN:

Samir Khan saw himself as kind of a pseudo- intellectual. He developed kind of his propaganda skill set, working out of this parents' home in Charlotte, North Carolina. For years he was just posting online to these Islamic forums.

And soon posting wasn't good enough, so he started his own blog. That wasn't good enough, so he started his own pro-Al Qaeda media outlet here in the United States. That wasn't enough, so he started making videos and eventually he made his own English language pro-Al Qaeda magazine.

You know, Samir Khan knew what it was like to be one of these kids who wanted to support Al Qaeda, couldn't do it and took it upon himself to change how the game was played.

BOB GARFIELD:

Tell me about al-Awlaki. How did you get to be sort of the Tokyo Rose of militant Islam?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

You know, if you go back and listen to a lot of his, his sermons, virtually none of them have anything to do with violence or at least openly espouse violence. What he does is provide a very distilled back-to-basics understanding of Islam.

BOB GARFIELD:

Often the sermons were in no way incendiary. Let's just, uh, listen to him talking about obesity.

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI:

Umar Abdulmutallab would encourage exercise, and he didn't like obesity. In fact, he said beware of overeating. If you are overweight, even if it's caused by genetic reasons, try to lose weight.

BOB GARFIELD:

I should make it clear that while sometimes he was talking about obesity, a recurring theme was that Islam is under attack. Did he ever, though, issue orders, say, you must act, you must defend Islam?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

No, the way Awlaki would do this is he would let you do the math. He would present you with a problem. He’d say, you're under attack. Islam is under attack. You have at your disposal an arsenal of tools you can employ. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna live up to your duty? Or are you gonna sit back and let Islam be conquered? So people would feel more invested because they came to the conclusion themselves.

He wasn't giving these command statements, like Zawahiri or bin Laden, shaking his finger at people saying, you must do this, because for his constituency a lot of them hadn't bought off on the idea. A lot of them didn't support Al Qaeda, or at least weren’t sure if they could.

 

And so, Awlaki brought a lot of fence sitters, who otherwise may not have been interest in the Al Qaeda ideology, over with him when he joined up. So I think this, this opens a, a massive chasm that will be almost impossible for Al Qaeda to fill.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, that's an optimistic view. Others are less optimistic. What — what's the argument that says that these roles will be filled rapidly by others?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

I think the, the biggest counter argument is that the genie’s already out of the bottle, right, that al-Awlaki’s already flooded the Internet with his sermons, Khan has already produced now seven Inspire magazines, plus a whole backlog of his previous magazine. And so, the movement itself will fill that role.

In many ways, you know, I make that argument myself, but I think in the absence of having a, a rallying figure like Awlaki, it will quickly dissipate in terms of the coherence and lethality of that movement.

BOB GARFIELD:

Is there a precedent for targeting not just American citizens, but propagandists, as opposed to guys with their fingers on triggers?

JARRET BRACHMAN:

It's a complicated question because not a lot of open source information has been released about the role that al-Awlaki played operationally. So I think this is why you see the Obama administration calling him the chief of external operations, as opposed to focusing on his propaganda role. By saying he was the main target, they kind of get themselves out of that question.

Samir Khan, however, it seems to me, was — was purely a propagandist. I think that's why the Obama administration is saying his death wasn’t the focus; he just happened to be in the vehicle.

This administration has shown that it's willing to take these kind of unprecedented steps in order to take out unprecedented individuals.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jarret, thank you very much.

JARRET BRACHMAN:

Yeah, thank you, appreciate it.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jarret Brachman is the author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice.