Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 15, 2010

Who is the world’s most dangerous man, and what happens if you watch his Youtube videos?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on June 15, 2010

Anwar al-Awlaki is the world’s most dangerous man, according to a May 10, 2010 editorial in the Investor’s Business Daily.

“The U.S.-born Muslim cleric, who’s believed to be al-Qaida’s top recruiter in the West, also radicalized the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas crotch-bomber.  Awlaki privately ministered to some of the 9/11 hijackers as well…. [The] confessed New York car bomber Faisal Shahzad is a fan and follower of Awlaki. He joins a growing list of homegrown terrorists who fell under the al-Qaida operative’s spell…. Awlaki is now linked to [multiple] terrorist plots designed to kill Americans at home…:  Times Square. Fort Hood. Fort Dix. Northern Virginia. Minneapolis. Detroit.”

Awlaki was born in New Mexico on April 22, 1971.  That makes him a US citizen.  According to press reports, the Obama Administration authorized the CIA —  “with no judicial process and based on secret intelligence”— to execute Awlaki.

One can write a lot about Awlaki, his influence, and the decision to kill him.

But this post is about Awlaki’s voice.


Last week I was introduced — along with a few dozen other people — to one of Awlaki’s freely available Youtube videos, shown at the end of this post. (The video is in two parts, both about 6 minutes each.)

More than a few people in the room were somewhat stunned by how rational Awlaki sounded. This is not a ranting mystic spewing blind hatred to ignorant masses.

This is an educated, articulate American talking calmly — most of the time — about the inevitable destruction of the United States.

It is not that his logic made sense to the people in the room.  But while listening to his voice, many of us understood viscerally how Awlaki’s words could seduce a searching, isolated, alienated man or woman with a predisposition toward a particular bent of mind.

Times Square. Fort Hood. Fort Dix. Northern Virginia. Minneapolis. Detroit, New York City, Arlington, Shanksville,

Yes.  Anwar al-Awlaki is dangerous.

After the video and the discussion about it was finished, a few public safety officials asked how they could get access to that video and to others that Awlaki and people like him produced.

“Well,” someone said, “a lot of them are on Youtube.  Watch them online.”

Another person noted a potential problem: If you work for the government and have a security clearance (or even if you don’t) and those who might monitor internet access notice you are looking at these kinds of videos — or sites that host videos like this — what happens?

At a minimum, I was told,  you’d get a visit from someone who had a few questions to ask you.


Sun Tzu is quoted as saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

In the 21st Century, knowing one’s enemy ought to include being able to watch his Youtube videos.

But what if you were looking over Nidal Malik Hasan’s shoulders as he watched one of Awlaki’s videos?  Would you have told someone about it?  Or would you simply have been looking at an American citizen exercising his rights to listen to whatever he wanted?

This remains a queer and different kind of war.


Part 1

Part 2

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Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 15, 2010 @ 7:45 am

This is the precipice that we find ourselves on; is Anwar al-Awlaki the world’s most dangerous man? By crowning him as such do we propel him or hinder him? Is he a transcendent leader or a spiritual confidence man? Does he grow to synergize with UBL or is he competition? And what does it say about Western institutions and particularly the United States?

“It is not that his logic made sense to the people in the room.” I would argue his logic makes a great deal of sense as we are not his initial target audience. Often, we use conventional wisdom to define others logic. Conventional wisdom has lost its real or true definition over time. It’s a limiting factor, a pejorative. We are not his initial target audience, but perhaps a tangent or obtuse one. The bygone days of freedom of movement and convenience are tools in his rhetoric and he is accurate that we’ll not return to them. Nevertheless, is he accurate in questioning our fiscal methodology for prevention? His argument has sound, targeted, and reasonable overtures throughout it. Is it provocative? Not really. Is it a point of view? Absolutely.

Much of his argument is what could be deemed classic anti Americanism. Nevertheless, is his logic more accurate than inaccurate?

It’s been nine years since 9/11. It’s been seventeen years since the ’93 bombing. Relative to the time, money, and the human toll, what have we accomplished? Were we attacked because we grew too weak or too powerful? What has winning the Cold War netted us?

Sun Tzu is quoted as saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”… OK; completely concur… but what of the remaining piece of this excerpt; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. Do we know our enemy? Do we know ourselves? Are we fighting the wrong war at the wrong time? Are we so risk averse that we slowly slip back to avoidance warfare? And, is al Awalaki accurate in his assessments of it? Is this a guerilla war or a Madison Avenue one?

“But while listening to his voice, many of us understood viscerally how Awlaki’s words could seduce a searching, isolated, alienated man or woman with a predisposition toward a particular bent of mind” .

Anwar al-Awlaki draws contrast between warfare methodologies; the giant oppressive U.S. against the poor oppressed rock yielding young Muslim. Contrast is a wonderful tool of persuasion. It’s not the isolated, alienated, man or woman we need to focus on; we’ve already proven that the lone wolf hunting yields little result. There is no 100% containment/prevention solution and there never has been. Again, harking back to the Cold War; we and the USSR had some degree of what could be deemed acceptable loss and/or wobble area.

Are we chasing ghosts or must there be a pragmatic expectation of penetration? And, who wants to own that responsibility? Who wants to pick the number of acceptable loss of life, property etc? Very tough but at the same time required conversations.

What if this entire scheme was not about religion but simply about power? Why hasn’t UBL or Dr. Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al-Zawahiri martyred themselves for their cause? Are their egos and leadership roles products of divine intervention or ruthless cunning? Why do they profess to speak on the prophets behalf and exploit others? Why do the Taliban and Al Qaeda make such large amounts of money off the drug trade?

What happens now, with the recent discovery of over an estimated trillion dollars of minerals in Afghanistan?

And is there a demographic constituency more prevalent to “here” this message as opposed to dismiss it? Are their comparative leaders in the West opposing this rhetoric?

So is Anwar al-Awlaki the world’s most dangerous man or is he an evolutionary leader moving the message along? His message is clear, cogent, and displays clarity. But is it accurate? If we are to know our enemy, perhaps we should listen more clearly and with a different purpose. If we are to know ourselves, do we find anything in his messaging to have a degree of accuracy? What are we compelled to do, willing to do and capable of doing to know both ourselves and our adversaries? Until we can do that, we will be imperiled to lose more than battles.

Thanks for posting!

Comment by Philip Palin

June 15, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

Three responses:

If our professionals — those with classified clearances, no less — are concerned about the implications of accessing open sources on potential threats, then we have identified another self-made vulnerability we should address pronto. This is not an issue of better-be-careful or wait-and-see; this is something that a professional should engage explicitly with their superiors.

If I had noticed Major Nidal watching the YouTubes I hope I would have taken the opportunity to talk with the Major about al-Awlaki’s message, Major Nidal’s own faith, my faith, and the religious dimensions of our varied lives. Separation, isolation, alienation, and the resulting ability to deny a shared identity with the “other” contributes to successful terrorism and unsuccessful counter-terrorism. It also impoverishes our daily lives.

Was there an opportunity for those watching these videos to discuss the religious or spiritual characteristics of the message? If so, what was the audience input? If not, was it just a time issue or did something else get in the way of such a discussion?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 15, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

Great post and comments.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Terrorism: a religious dimension

July 23, 2010 @ 12:24 am

[…] In his March Call to Jihad Anwar al-Awlaki, explained, “Victory is on our side because there is a difference between us and you. We are fighting for a noble cause. We are fighting for God and you are fighting for worldly gain. We are fighting for justice because we are defending ourselves and our families and you are fighting for imperialistic goals. We are fighting for truth and justice and you are fighting for oppression.” […]

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