Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad

  • Published

Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Harvard University Press, 2020, 352 pp.

When al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Anwar al-Awlaki seemed an unlikely candidate to become a jihadist mastermind. The bespectacled, gangly Awlaki, then the imam of the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, appeared to be a charismatic but otherwise fairly unremarkable Islamic preacher and lecturer. Yet only a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki—who had fled the United States for Yemen and become a prominent leader in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by 2008—was inspiring terrorist attacks in the United States. He was considered so dangerous that he became the first American citizen to be killed in the United States’ campaign of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes against terrorist leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa. What caused Awlaki’s progression from seemingly moderate imam to jihadist propagandist and terror instigator? How, if at all, had his Islamic beliefs shifted since his time at the Falls Church Dar al-Hijrah Mosque? And why has Awlaki’s jihadist messaging proven to be so resilient among adherents to extremist versions of Salafi Islam?

In Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens examines these questions, focusing on Awlaki’s ideological beliefs and the diagnostic and prognostic frames used by Awlaki to convey his Salafi-Jihadist beliefs to his many followers. Meleagrou-Hitchens, who earned his PhD in war studies from King’s College London, is the research director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a lecturer on terrorism and radicalization at King’s College London.

While Incitement is partially biographical, the book is primarily a monograph “analyz[ing] Awlaki’s promotion of the global jihad movement in the West and . . . how his efforts impacted his audience” (p. 12). Overarchingly, Meleagrou-Hitchens seeks to investigate how and why Awlaki’s radical message resonated with segments of his primary target audience (Western Muslims) and demonstrate the prophetic—and, unfortunately, enduring—nature of Awlaki’s strategy of encouraging decentralized, independent jihadist terrorist attacks. Incitement’s eight chapters are divided evenly into two sections. The first focuses on Awlaki himself, examining biographical details of his life, developments in his ideological progression toward violent jihadism, and his actions in the service of al-Qaeda. The second delves into Awlaki’s influence on specific terrorist actors and the global jihadist movement more broadly.

Part 1 begins with a biographical chapter examining Awlaki’s life as an Islamic preacher and lecturer. Meleagrou-Hitchens charts Awlaki’s course as an imam from his early lecturing years in the Denver/Fort Collins area through his progression to imam of Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Virginia (2001–2002). Awlaki then goes to the United Kingdom and, ultimately, Yemen, where he fled after finding himself subject to FBI scrutiny in the United States. Along the way, Awlaki’s charisma allowed him to become a prominent voice in American Islam, primarily through recordings of his lectures, which were widely distributed at Islamic conference and events throughout the United States. This prominence, and the authority it gave Awlaki’s pronouncements after his shift to more radical jihadist preaching, contributed to his eventual status, as another American Salafi imam described him, as “the most dangerous person who has ever existed in English-speaking Islam” (p. 88).

Through the remainder of part 1, Meleagrou-Hitchens examines Awlaki’s Islamic belief system itself. He convincingly argues that, despite the widespread belief that Awlaki’s ideology changed significantly over time, Awlaki’s framing of Islam was largely consistent throughout his career. Specifically, the author demonstrates that Awlaki’s diagnostic framing of the kufar (non-Muslims or infidels) as enemies of Islam who need to be confronted, perhaps even violently, did not measurably change either before or after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, it was Awlaki’s prognostic frames—his proposed solutions to the problem of Islam-under-attack—that grew increasingly radical. While his early career in the United States emphasized nonviolent proselytizing and education (though not without justifications of violence in the context of political situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), his Salafism took an even more jihadist bent throughout the early 2000s. This ideology eventually led to his emigration to Yemen, declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda, and propaganda efforts to recruit and inspire additional Western Muslims to the jihadist cause.

Each of the first three chapters of part 2 focuses on an individual who committed, or attempted to commit, terrorist attacks in the West based on the influence of Awlaki’s radical ideology. One is Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the “Christmas Day Bomber,” who failed to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear on a transatlantic flight over Detroit on 25 December 2009. Another is Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 and injured 30 in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009. The third is Zachary Chesser, the online Islamist propagandist most famous for threatening to kill South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and prosecuted for attempting to join the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab in July 2010. All three had been in personal or virtual contact with Awlaki, and Meleagrou-Hitchens demonstrates how their understandings of Islamic theology, and, more significantly, their own moral and religious obligations in the context of this theology were molded by Awlaki’s radical interpretation of Salafi Islam.

Incitement’s final chapter may be its most important. Here, Meleagrou-Hitchens examines Awlaki’s enduring, posthumous influence among radical jihadist groups after his targeted assassination in 2011. Most prominent among these groups is the Islamic State, which to date has used Awlaki’s message to the most devastating effect in recruiting Western Muslims to its cause. Despite Awlaki’s allegiance to al-Qaeda (which refused to ally with the Islamic State due to ideological differences), his extensive work justifying jihadist Islamic theology in the English language proved to be a profound boon to the Islamic State. Given Awlaki’s extensive output and internet-based reach, the group could build on the network of sympathetic Muslims and Western converts Awlaki had already primed for radicalism and use Awlaki’s written and recorded justifications for global jihad in its own sophisticated propaganda.

If there is anything to criticize about Incitement, it may simply be that, by focusing on Awlaki’s ideology and ideological influence, Meleagrou-Hitchens’s work is over too soon. With the addition of a more comprehensive biographical section on Awlaki’s life, it is no exaggeration to say that he could have written the definitive, single-volume work on Awlaki. That said, this is to unfairly criticize Incitement for not being something that, as its author explicitly notes in his introduction, it was not meant to be. Meleagrou-Hitchens is quite clear that his purpose is to contribute to the larger “discussion of Salafi-jihadism in the West” and Awlaki’s role in developing and, even posthumously, contributing to the propagation of “homegrown” Salafi-jihadist ideology. In this, he has succeeded admirably. Anyone interested in the history and development of modern Salafi jihadism or (perhaps even more significantly in the modern context) radicalism and the methods by which extremists convert and recruit their followers will find this book a fascinating read.

Maj Jeremy J. Grunert, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."