“Mowing the Grass” in Yemen

Radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, the victim of assassination by US forces 30 September, was born in New Mexico in 1971, educated at Colorado State University in engineering, and radicalised while preaching in US mosques and visiting Afghanistan in the 1990s. His sermons attracted a large following, first in Denver and then San Diego, where he completed a Masters in education.

Though in the FBI’s sites from 1999, he became a media star after 9/11, interviewed by National Geographic and the New York Times as a moderate, articulate American Muslim. He condemned the attacks, stating ”There is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.” On IslamOnline.net six days after the 9/11 attacks, he suggested that Israeli intelligence agents might have been responsible, and that the FBI “went into the roster of the airplanes, and whoever has a Muslim or Arab name became the hijacker by default”.

The US Secretary of the Army was eager to have a presentation from a moderate Muslim as part of an outreach effort, and a Pentagon employee invited Al-Awlaki to a luncheon in the Secretary’s Office of General Counsel. He became the first imam to conduct a prayer service at the US Capitol in 2002 for the Congressional Muslim Staffer Association and officials of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

However, harassment by the FBI drove him to go to England in 2002, where he continued his preaching. He moved to Yemen in 2004, was arrested in 2006 on kidnapping and terrorism charges, imprisoned (and no doubt tortured), but released in December 2007. His sermons about Islamic ethics and the lives of the prophets became best-selling CDs and there were 1,910 Youtube videos of his lectures, though they have all been removed and his CDs are no longer for sale. It was only after his prison experience that he openly advocated jihad against the US.

The hardest evidence against him seems to be that Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, was in touch with him, and Faisal Shahzad, who was behind the New York Times Square car bomb attempt in May 2010, cited him as an inspiration. Obama, in a replay of his May announcement of the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, boasted that Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in the northern Yemeni province of Mareb, home of Al-Awlaki clan, along with his protege, 25-year-old Pakistani-American Samir Khan.

Al-Awlaki tribal leaders insist the body was not Anwar’s and demanded DNA analysis. However, assuming that he and Khan indeed died, this is the first case of the US government deliberately killing two American citizens. And their only proven crime was their eloquent Internet appeals to fight the US empire.

This new policy has shocked even mainstream politicians, such as Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, and gives Al-Awlaki’s “dangerous message a life and power of its own”, according to US imam Yasir Qadhi, writing in the NTY. Claims that he was an Al-Qaeda leader or that he was directly involved in any terrorist action have never been substantiated. His murder was clearly just another feather in Obama’s warrior headdress as he launches his re-election campaign this autumn.

Mainstream critics call the assassination “an act of futility” insisting he was not even part of Al-Qaeda. Virtually unknown in Yemen, Al-Awlaki will merely become another martyr in Yemen’s ongoing struggle to free itself from American hegemony. Others left behind are far more skilled than Al-Awlaki, according to the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Centre.

The real reason he and Khan were targeted was because they were charismatic communicators of Islam to Western dissidents. As desperate American and European youth become radicalised by the conflicts of the post-2001 period and the endless economic crisis, they will increasingly look to the likes of Al-Awlaki who provide a simple, if deadly, solution for young people with nothing to lose.

Just as new recruits to the Taliban spring up daily, as the US kills Afghan resistance fighters in droves, so the US will have to kill more and more people in Yemen and who-knows-where in a never-ending campaign, what US troops in Afghanistan call “mowing the grass”. And its victims will increasingly be Americans, disgusted with their own government and recognising it as the main cause of the world’s troubles today.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.