Anwar al-Awlaki, the Infidel

[Editor’s note: I am extremely happy to present a new ad-hoc contributor. He should be known to most Jihadica readers: Brian Fishman is a former director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and the author of several landmark studies on al-Qaida in Iraq, several of which are available here. He brings us quite a story today.]


Since the awful shootings at Fort Hood, media attention has focused on MAJ Nidal Hasan’s relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born salafi preacher now in Yemen. Less well known, however, is that al-Awlaki was once declared kafir (infidel) by then London-based jihadi Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal.

The Jamaica-born al-Faisal, himself a convert, was a key figure in late 1990s and early 2000s “Londonistan”; he was imprisoned in 2003 for soliciting murder and eventually deported from the UK in May 2007 for his links to 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsey. Indeed it is al-Faisal, not al-Awlaki, who is the most prominent English-speaking jihadi preacher. The lesson here is certainly not that Anwar al-Awlaki is a moderate, but that the world of jihadi ideologues is never as simple as it seems. 

Al-Awlaki began his religious preaching at the Rabat Mosque in San Diego. Sometime in 2001, Awlaki moved to Virginia; he spent time in the UK in 2002 before returning to Virginia, and finally he moved to Yemen in 2004.

The date is unclear, but at some point prior to al-Awlaki’s move to Virginia one of his lectures came to the attention of al-Faisal, who was so furious over its content that he devoted one of his own sermons to refuting al-Awlaki and ultimately declared him a kafir—or no longer a Muslim, which meant that he could be killed as a non-believer. One of al-Faisal’s followers can be heard in the recording suggesting that al-Awlaki should be killed.

Al-Faisal’s lecture on al-Awlaki is listed as “CIA Islam – Sheikh Faisal’s Takfeer of Anwar Awlaki” on www.archive.org. On the recording, Faisal explains that his lecture is about a preacher named “Anwar” from the Masjid al-Rabat in San Diego. He then proceeds to play sections of Awlaki’s lecture for his audience before refuting its points. The voice on the tape seems to be that of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Al-Faisal’s complaint about al-Awlaki is basically twofold: First, that al-Awlaki’s criteria for declaring takfir was overly restrictive—someone would have to directly refute the Quran or blatantly denounce central tenets of Islam in order to receive that designation.  And, second, that al-Awlaki argued that only God should judge Muslims. Al-Faisal argues that this non-judgmental understanding of Islam is pushed by the CIA in order to limit violent activism.

The issue of judgment resonates deeply for al-Faisal. After playing a portion of the lecture in which al-Awlaki declares, “we do not judge the people…we leave that for Allah,” al-Faisal pointedly asks his audience, “Do you agree with that, brothers?” 

After the audience grumbles in response, Faisal prompts them again, “I can’t hear you!” and then asks, “What should we do with him?” Referring to al-Awlaki, someone in the audience replies, “Kill him, brother, kill him.” To hammer home the point, al-Faisal affirms, “The brother said ‘kill him.”

Later, speaking rhetorically to al-Awlaki, al-Faisal exclaims, “Did you realize that when you opened your mouth and said ‘we are not here to judge’ you became worse than the kuffar?… You have become the lowest of the low.”

Al-Faisal’s reactions to al-Awlaki are typical of jihadi critiques of Muslims that do not join their cause. Indeed, al-Awlaki’s ideological arguments in the San Diego recording are at odds with the most virulent contemporary jihadi ideology.  It certainly did not meet al-Faisal’s standards. 

The available snippets of al-Awlaki’s San Diego tape, al-Faisal’s reaction to it, and al-Awlaki’s more recent statements about violence suggest that al-Awlaki went through a radicalization process of his own. Al-Awlaki’s statements in a February 13, 2004 interview with National Public Radio illustrate the tension that ultimately seems to have led Nidal Hasan to violence. Pressed about the role of Muslims in the West after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, al-Awlaki condemned 9/11 strongly but explained that “after the bombing (the invasion of Iraq)…the conversation shifted…Muslims are torn between solidarity with their religious fellowmen and their fellow citizens.”

Al-Awlaki’s old statements raise more questions than answers. They hint at a personal ideological evolution and the frustrations that led to violence. They should leave us wondering how al-Awlaki recovered from such a denunciation to build a good reputation in the jihadi community. And did al-Awlaki and al-Faisal ever meet during al-Awlaki’s stint in the UK? Was al-Awlaki intimidated into more radical positions? Or did he hold them all along? 

Al-Faisal’s denunciation of al-Awlaki does not mean that he is—or even was—a good guy. But it does mean that even the relatively small English-speaking jihadi movement has its divisions over ideology and leadership. That should be one of the lessons that comes out of the terrible tragedy at Fort Hood—not just that we need to identify the Nidal Hasans of the world (which we do), but that the Anwar al-Awlakis of the world face ideological and personal crises of their own.  When jihadis make enemies of one another, that’s when it is time for counterterrorism professionals to make allies.

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7 Responses

  1. interestingly JIMAS (which is one of the most prominent salafi organisations in britain going back at least to the early 90s) has an official repudiation of al-awlaki on their site following his statement on fort hood. this is because they like others used to promote his sermons and talks (selling CDs etc).
    JIMAS is quite an interesting phenomenon – supporting jihad in the 90s and before (especially in Afghanistan) and then having a serious change of policy post-7/7

  2. interesting story

    so you are suggesting because two jihad preaching imams don’t agree, that CT presumably meaning FBI/CIA should exploit this? first that presumes CT is aware of the riff, and not seven years after the fact and 14 dead later

    jihad-supporting muslims have been playing the feds, and winning, for years

  3. It is worth pointing out that Abdullah Faisal seems to have made takfir of almost everyone at some point – including of people like Bin Baaz and Abu Qatada. The fact that Faisal takfir-ed some body is therefore not a particularly good indicator of anything.

    In fact, Islamists in London started to regard Faisal as a joke as a direct result of his enthusiasm for declaring takfir of anyone whose views were not identical to his own. In response to this, Faisal ultimately retracted some of his takfiris – which served to only discredit him further.

  4. Interesting comments.

    I’m not suggesting that we ought to blame FBI/CIA for not exploiting this rift years ago, or even that this disagreement was necessarily exploitable. But I do think it should be one of the lessons extracted from this entire awful incident at Ft. Hood. It also, frankly, is a part of the discussion of Awlaki that wasn’t being discussed elsewhere.

    James B makes a great point about Faisal being trigger happy with the takfir claims, though declaring bin Baz kafr doesn’t make him unique in jihadi circles. I’m not aware of the Qatada claim, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

    It’s a fair point about Faisal undermining his own reputation, but he still had enough juice to inspire Germaine Lindsey. It’s always going to be the fringe elements arguing for, and inspiring, violence. Zarqawi drew strength from the fact that no one agreed with him.

    Raises an interesting question: Are waning ideological movements more likely to turn to violence? Is strength or weakness an indicator of violence?

  5. There is no documented proof that Abdullah Faisal retracted for what he said about Anwar Awlaki. And it is incorrect to deem JIMAS as ‘Salafi’ per se, more Ikhwani in methodology.

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