Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been killed at the age of 40 by missiles fired from an American unmanned drone in Yemen, was an effective propagandist for radical Islam and a key figure in the dissemination of the message of al-Qaida and related groups. With his fluent English, grasp of contemporary western culture and ability to condense esoteric theological debates into simple arguments, the Yemeni-American dual-national citizen was able to act as a real and virtual mentor to large numbers of young Muslims around the world attracted by the ideology of violent extremism.

Awlaki was born in New Mexico, while his father, from a prominent Yemeni family, was studying agriculture there on a scholarship. His family returned to Yemen in 1978 and Awlaki lived in the capital, Sana'a, until finishing his secondary education. He then returned to the US, where he attended colleges in Colorado and San Diego, gaining degrees in education. In 1993 he travelled to Afghanistan, then in the depths of the chaotic civil war between former mujahideen factions which had followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The Taliban had not yet been formed, and it is unclear which group Awlaki was with and what he did during his time there. He married on his return to the US, where he took up a post as an imam at the Rabat mosque in San Diego.

It was typical of marginal religious institutions of the time. Awlaki had no religious qualifications and almost no religious education beyond his own patchy reading. This appears largely to have centred on the main extremist thinkers of recent decades – such as Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam – rather than texts of established theological importance. During this period he met and developed a close relationship with two of the future 9/11 hijackers.

Though there has been much conjecture. and despite clear indications that the young preacher was known to many participants, no solid evidence has emerged linking Awlaki to the 9/11 plot. In the aftermath of the strike, Awlaki was interviewed repeatedly and condemned the operation as unIslamic. On the point of being arrested for passport fraud, he left the US for Britain.

Awlaki was extremely active in the UK, embarking on lengthy speaking tours. He focused his efforts on Islamic centres and student societies, which were under less surveillance either by security forces or local religious figures. He also began using the internet. An undoubtedly charismatic figure, he built a substantial following among young British Muslims suffering significant identity problems, angry at the continuing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine and with limited understanding of Islam.

However, in 2004 he left Britain for Yemen. After a period preaching and lecturing, Awlaki was arrested in 2006 on kidnapping and terrorism charges and imprisoned. He was released in December 2007 without facing trial following lobbying by senior members of his tribe, and moved to his family's home in the rugged and remote Shabwa mountains.

From Yemen, Awlaki stepped up his propaganda activities. His ability to use new media and command of English led him to rapidly become one of the best-known interpreters of radical Islam for a new generation of potential volunteers mobilised and radicalised by the conflicts of the post-2001 period.

Reachable by email, Awlaki became a personal mentor to a number of groups and individuals contemplating violence. One was Nidal Malik Hasan, the US army officer who is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009. Another may have been Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty to an attempt in May 2010 to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, New York, and was sentenced to a life term in prison.

Awlaki was also described in court testimony as an inspiration by two of the six people convicted on conspiracy and other charges in a plot to kill US military personnel at Fort Dix in 2007, and was cited as a key influence by Roshonara Choudhry, a British student who, in May 2010, stabbed the Labour MP Stephen Timms because of his support for the war in Iraq. A Facebook page once had thousands of supporters, and one of his hundreds of videotaped lectures posted on YouTube was downloaded more than 150,000 times. In February 2009, he published a text called 44 Ways to Support Jihad on his blog.

Awlaki was also behind the slick internet extremist magazine called Inspire. In an edition earlier this year, the magazine welcomed the Arab revolts that deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia as an opportunity rather than a setback for radical militancy, despite the negligible role of extremists in the uprisings.

His increasing prominence in the fragmented and chaotic landscape of contemporary Islamic extremism not only provoked resentment among more established figures – Osama bin Laden apparently vetoed a suggestion that the younger preacher be appointed head of the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen – but led to Awlaki becoming the first American citizen to be placed on the CIA's list of individuals around the world who the agency aim to kill or capture. His killing was approved by Barack Obama in April 2010. The news provoked strong condemnation from civil rights groups and protests from Awlaki's family. The militant's father called his son an "all-American boy".

Awlaki's exact relationship either with senior leaders of al-Qaida in Pakistan or the hierarchy of the local groups operating under the label of "al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" is unclear. In recent years, US officials have cited evidence that Awlaki had become personally involved in the planning of attacks on America – something that would help provide a legal justification for the controversial act of remote-controlled assassination.

In testimony before a congressional committee last year, the secretary for homeland security Janet Napolitano said that Awlaki had taken on an operational role in attack planning. In a statement confirming his death, Obama cited a link to the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of an airliner heading for Detroit and a bid to post bombs to synagogues in Chicago on cargo planes last year.

Awlaki's operational role was of far less importance for al-Qaida or related groups than his activities as a communicator. Though senior militants in the Middle East often have a basic command of English, few have any real grasp of western culture. The role of men such as Awlaki in sustaining the momentum of the social movement of extremism is important, particularly in a period where neither paternalist lectures from elderly pseudo-clerics nor the demands of organised religion hold much attraction for alienated or simply adventurous young people in the west, the Middle East or elsewhere.

Others will no doubt continue his work, but a significant figure in the landscape of contemporary Sunni islamic militancy has gone. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Anwar al-Awlaki, terrorist propagandist and leader, born 22 April 1971; died 30 September 2011


Jason Burke

The GuardianTramp

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