The Anwar al-Awlaki who impressed me as a teenager | Nussaibah Younis

From impassioned preacher to 'terrorist No 1' – via a loss of faith in American freedom

The American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki has been declared a prime suspect in the cargo plane bomb plot. This is the latest in a series of allegations levelled against Awlaki, who is thought by US officials to be at the helm of a serious al-Qaida threat emerging from Yemen. Awlaki had exchanged emails with Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Malik Hassan, and was suspected of mentoring Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the London student who allegedly attempted to detonate explosives on a flight to Detroit. The US response to these allegations has been aggressive and some would claim unconstitutional. In April 2010 President Barack Obama controversially placed Awlaki on the CIA list making him a target for assassination by US forces, despite being an American citizen.

I knew Awlaki as a minor celebrity on the Islamic conference circuit when I was in my teens. As a 15-year-old my idea of a great weekend involved taking a coach to London, Birmingham or Glasgow conferences and watching the latest Muslim preachers perform. Once you've been on the circuit for a while, you get a ratings system going: when old, first-generation Pakistani men get up to speak you skip out into the corridor for a cup of coffee and a gossip. But when the Americans come on stage, you make sure you sure you are in the front row.

The American speakers – and Awlaki was one of them – had two great advantages. They spoke English as a first language and they were great orators – confident, lucid, and humorous. Awlaki was up there in my top five, along with the interminably popular American covert Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. The Swiss-Egyptian Tariq Ramadan was to later break the Americans' dominance of the "great Muslim preacher" list, but his sexy accent and dashing good looks gave him an unfair advantage.

When I hit 17, I attended a 10-day Islamic studies course and was thrilled to discover that Awlaki was the centrepiece of the schedule. He taught us about the life of the prophet Muhammad for three hours a day and it was mesmerising. He taught by telling stories. He spoke about the prophet Muhammad, his wives, his companions and their lives with such passion, intimacy and humour – it was as though he knew them first hand. His stories were so good because he wasn't afraid to see the humanity in the characters he described. He spoke about their weaknesses as well as their strengths, about jealousy, anger, love and lust.

At the time, Awlaki did not condone the killing of civilians, by states or by "terrorists". He widely condemned the 9/11 attacks. He was quoted by the Washington Times saying: "Muslims still see Bin Laden as a person with extremely radical ideas. But he has been able to take advantage of the sentiment that is out there regarding US foreign policy. We're totally against what the terrorists had done. We want to bring those who had done this to justice. But we're also against the killing of civilians in Afghanistan."

But Awlaki was deeply hurt by the US response to the 9/11 attacks. One of the American values he treasured the most had been "freedom", but as he watched the arrest and detention of Muslims without trial in Guantánamo Bay and witnessed the criminalisation of the American Muslim community, he began to think that maybe American "freedom" was a charade. He was sickened by the mass civilian casualties inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan, and worried that as an American citizen he, too, was partly responsible for the actions of his country.

The transformation of Awlaki from an impassioned, though sometimes rather literalist, Muslim preacher, welcome in Europe and the US, into "terrorist No 1" is a political – not a religious – transformation. Awlaki lost confidence in the west's commitment to its self-professed values and became convinced that the west was bent on destroying Islam. By effectively signing his death warrant before trial, the Obama administration has done little to prove Awlaki wrong.


Nussaibah Younis

The GuardianTramp

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