He was al-Qaeda’s pied piper, a gifted writer and preacher whose words were a siren’s call to violent jihad for young Muslims around the world. Though he was never known to fire a shot, Anwar al-Aulaqi was linked to more terrorist plots against U.S. and other Western targets in the past five years than Osama bin Laden himself.
The U.S.-born Muslim cleric played key roles in the Fort Hood, Tex., shooting rampage in 2009 that killed 13 people, as well as last year’s foiled attempt to put bombs on cargo planes bound to the United States. His words led a young Nigerian to attempt to blow up a jetliner over Detroit, and inspired an unemployed Pakistani man to drive a bomb-laden vehicle into the heart of New York’s Times Square.
In between, Aulaqi (whose name sometimes was spelled “Awlaki”) regularly exhorted Western Muslims to attack without waiting for outside guidance or instruction. “Fighting the devil doesn’t require consultation or prayers,” he once declared.
So effective was his message that the CIA last year put him on the agency’s official target list, making him the first American citizen to be designated for death, wherever he could be found, without judicial process.
“He was one of a kind,” said Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism expert and consultant on al-Qaeda for government agencies and private companies. “His message was so accessible, so engaging and so compelling. It was irresistible for a lot of people who sat on the fence and just needed a catalyst to push them over.”
A senior U.S. government official described him simply as “one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous terrorists.”
The epithet was repeated by several intelligence and administration officials who recounted Aulaqi’s ties to terrorist plots and sought to portray him as an operational planner, not just a cleric whose weapons were words and pixels.
His death Friday by drone strike in a remote corner of Yemen ended a short but colorful career as a prominent propagandist and strategic thinker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the bin Laden-led Jihadist group that emerged in the last decade as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. As the CIA’s drone campaign increased the pressure on bin Laden’s followers in northwestern Pakistan, AQAP gained notoriety as the force behind a succession of high-profile terrorist plots.
Aulaqi, 40, became both the public face of the AQAP group and also a private adviser and counselor to young Muslims seeking to carry out attacks on al-Qaeda’a behalf. After the death of bin Laden in May, some terrorism experts looked to Aulaqi as a possible new global leader of al-Qaeda.
It was an unlikely role for man who lived his formative years in the United States and was once regarded as a voice of moderate, tolerant Islam. Born in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1971, while his Yemeni father was attending New Mexico State University on a scholarship, Aulaqi spent his first seven years in the United States and later returned to attend college at Colorado State University. Acquaintances there described him as a skinny, brainy young man who embraced a Western lifestyle while remaining religiously pious.
It was while attending college that Aulaqi began speaking at a local mosque and discovered his gifts as a preacher and writer of religious essays. Aulaqi would eventually become a cleric who led congregations in San Diego and then at Dar al-Hirjah mosque in Falls Church, one of the largest Muslim congregations in the Washington area.
Aulaqi became known widely both for his sermons and his lectures on Islam, which were marketed throughout the world on audio CDs. His central message, while conservative and traditional, was one of tolerance. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was questioned by the FBI over what appeared to be a casual acquaintance with two of the hijackers. But he denounced al-Qaeda’s campaign of violence against innocents and called in his sermons for “freedom and human rights” in the Muslim Middle East.
But Aulaqi was angered by what he saw as an anti-Muslim backlash after the World Trade Center towers fell, so he moved his family overseas, settling first in London and later in Yemen. There, in 2006, he was arrested by Yemeni officials who questioned him, on the FBI’s behalf, about possible links to terrorists.
After more than a year in prison, his views toward the United States turned increasingly radical until he proclaimed, in a 2009 Web posting, that he viewed America as an enemy of Islam and was duty-bound to seek its destruction.
“America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil,” he wrote in another essay in March 2010, in which he described the change in his thinking. “I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.”
Aulaqi’s declaration of war was soon reciprocated as U.S. officials uncovered evidence linking the cleric to a succession of attacks and plots. In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden’s death, an armed U.S. drone fired a missile at a pickup in which Aulaqi was riding, narrowly missing. It was the first of several attempts to kill Aulaqi in Yemen from the air.
The final attempt did not miss. A terse statement released Friday by Yemeni officials disclosed that Aulaqi was discovered that morning near the town of Khashef in the northern province of Jawf.
The cleric was “targeted and killed,” the Yemeni statement read.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.