The U.S. Department of the Treasury has placed Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki on its list of terrorism supporters under Executive Order 13224 for his support of acts of terrorism and for his role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Treasury designated other top AQAP leaders—Nasser al Wahayshi, Said al Shihri, and Qasim al Raymi—on January 19, 2010, the same day the State Department added AQAP to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The July 16 press release announcing Awlaki’s designation as a “key leader” of AQAP justified the decision to freeze his assets by noting that he has “pledged an oath of loyalty to AQAP emir, Nasir al Wahishi” and helps set the “strategic direction for AQAP.” According to the statement, Awlaki has also recruited individuals to join AQAP, facilitated terrorist training camps in Yemen, and helped focus AQAP on targeting U.S. interests. Treasury’s designation of Awlaki is a positive step towards disrupting AQAP’s network, given that Awlaki’s role in AQAP has become increasingly operational, especially in recruiting and connecting with westerners.
The statement also confirmed reports of Awlaki’s involvement in the planning for the Christmas Day attack. He had recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, connected him with AQAP in Yemen, and ordered Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device over U.S. territory. Indeed, it was Awlaki’s role in the attack that appears to have been what motivated the U.S. government to target the cleric and place him on Treasury’s list of terrorism supporters.
But the Christmas Day attack was not Awlaki’s first connection to a plot. The FBI investigated him for terrorist activities as early as June 1999. As Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey noted in last week’s press release, “Anwar al-Aulaqi has proven that he is extraordinarily dangerous, committed to carrying out deadly attacks on American and others worldwide. He has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism – fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.” In fact, Awlaki had connections with 9/11, may have helped the Virginia 11, and encouraged U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s attack on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. His radical message has inspired at least four other major terrorist attacks or plots: the London 7/7 bombings, the Toronto 18, the Fort Dix plot and the May 2010 Times Square Bombing.
The Treasury designation may help limit Awlaki’s financial role in AQAP, but Awlaki has also demonstrated his value to the organization in his abilities to inspire radical Islamists to execute attacks, and to reach out to a previously untargeted audience: those who read and understand English. Most recently, Awlaki’s writing and message of violent jihad was featured in AQAP’s new English-language magazine, Inspire. In the feature article, Awlaki called on Muslims to execute all of those involved in the desecration of Islam—the “government, political parties, the police, the intelligence services, blogs, social networks, the media,” among other western targets, are all part of the system which makes the “attacking of any Western target legal from an Islamic viewpoint.”
Awlaki’s designation under E.O. 13224 recognizes Awlaki’s role within the AQAP organization; however, E.O. 13224 cannot prevent him from continuing to inspire others to wage violent jihad or sufficiently limit his role in AQAP. The U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive strategy targeting AQAP and the environment in which it thrives to effectively combat Awlaki, his message, and the network he supports.
Katherine Zimmerman is an analyst for AEI’s Critical Threats Project