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Thursday, May 05, 2011
N.M.-Born Jihadist Likely Next in Line
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
While Americans were feeling relief and a shot of national pride this week after the death of Osama bin Laden, the counterterrorism community had already turned the page.
It's less a symptom of American jumpiness than a practical reality. As more than one counterterrorism expert noted in the aftermath of the successful attack on bin Laden, removing the head of a monster doesn't mean it can't strike again. Al-Qaida has branches around the world and leaders in waiting.
Al-Qaida's future might very well center on a man who is most often described as a "homegrown extremist" and who had dethroned bin Laden as the No. 1 terrorism threat to the United States months before bin Laden took a bullet to the head in a compound in Pakistan on Sunday.
New Mexicans should get to know and understand that homegrown extremist, Anwar al-Awlaki, because to us he is quite literally homegrown.
Al-Awlaki has often been called the "bin Laden of the Internet" and "bin Laden 2.0." He's an American citizen, he just turned 40 and, like other 40-year-olds, he spends a lot of time online.
If you go to al-Awlaki's Facebook page, you'll note "Las Cruces, New Mexico" is his hometown.
Each time I see that in print or hear it in a newscast, it is as jarring as the first time.
I was at the pile of rubble in lower Manhattan two days after the World Trade Center towers fell, and I came home to New Mexico a few days later with the dust of pulverized concrete in the cuffs of my pants and the pockets of my jacket and the creases of my ears. Harder to wash away than the detritus of that awful explosion was a deep confusion about how a mass killing of civilians could serve anyone's political or religious agenda.
It was impossible to understand, but it wasn't hard to pin the face of bin Laden — so foreign, so "other" — on the evil.
Bin Laden, Saudi-born and raised, seen in grainy video speaking in an undecipherable accent from inside a cave, was somehow palatable — if that's possible — as the leader of a group determined to wage war on the United States and kill any number of Americans in the name of jihad.
The future, I fear, won't be that easy.
Anwar al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces in 1971 to parents from Yemen who were in the United States for postgraduate work. His father was pursuing a master's degree in agricultural economics at New Mexico State University when al-Awlaki was born, and the family moved to universities in Nebraska and Minnesota.
Al-Awlaki was 7 when he moved with his family back to Yemen, but he returned to the West as a college freshman, enrolling at Colorado State University in Fort Collins as a civil engineering major. He stayed in the United States for most of his adult life, abandoning engineering for preaching. He worked as an imam in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before moving to London in 2002 and then settling in Yemen in 2004 as a fully radicalized al-Qaida member.
Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a congressional committee as recently as February that al-Awlaki poses "probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland."
He is the al-Qaida leader credited with inspiring, through email exchanges, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting rampage at Fort Hood in 2009, in which 13 people were killed. He is linked to the failed airline "underwear bomber" plot over Detroit months later on Christmas Day and the failed mail bomb plot on cargo planes last year. He also had associations with three of the 9/11 hijackers.
He holds American citizenship, speaks flawless English and followed his path to radicalism among us.
With a "capture or kill" tag on his head — the first American citizen with that distinction — al-Awlaki is believed to be in rural Yemen.
Although he is in hiding, this child of America continues to recruit, using the tools of our modern age. YouTube pulled hundreds of his videos from its site last year after identifying them as violent content. But al-Awlaki maintains a website and an online magazine to promote his message of violence against the United States.
It's a different face of terrorism with a different accent — American.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.