On Friday, Washington Post readers learned about old wounds reopened at a Falls Church mosque after a U.S. airstrike killed the al-Qaeda operative “Anwar al-Aulaqi.” The operative had once been the imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque on Sept. 11, 2001, before he publicly embraced the anti-American extremism that made him a target of U.S. drones.
A photo gallery that accompanied the story showed images of “Anwar al-Awlaki,” reflecting the style of the Associated Press. The editors of The Post on Saturday decided to change the spelling of Aulaqi to Awlaki.
The Post decided to change Awlaki to the spelling he used. For instance, in the latest issue of Inspire, al-Qaeda’s English-language Web magazine, Awlaki referred to himself by that spelling. Inspire’s American editor, 25-year-old Samir Khan, was killed with Awlaki in the drone attack Friday in northern Yemen.
At the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, Awlaki gave a business card to Andrea Bruce, a Post photographer, after she photographed him there in 2001. On it, he spelled his name Awlaki.
The Post used Aulaqi because it was his official name on a series of court documents. There are indications that Awlaki went by Aulaqi on his birth certificate and passport, and his father used the Aulaqi spelling as recently as last year.
There is no definitive explanation of why Awlaki changed his name, but he did have a series of run-ins with authorities over the years, first for allegedly soliciting prostitutes in San Diego and later for a previous attempt to commit passport fraud. Court documents use the Aulaqi spelling. Awlaki’s decision to change his name would reduce connections to the prior arrests.
It is not the first time first time the Post has changed the spelling of a name, or had readers questioning its decision. In July, the Post began to use Benjamin Netanyahu over the Binyamin spelling for the the Israeli prime minister’s name. The name of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s name also has sparked confusion.
To make matters more complicated, the Post runs content on its Web site from the Associated Press, which often uses different spellings, such as Gadhafi in place of Gaddafi.
A related question came up on Twitter, when one reader asked why the Post and other news outlets referred to Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, as “U.S.-born” and not as a U.S. citizen.