Image source: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Image source: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Yemen raid and the ghost of Anwar al-Awlaki

9 February 2017

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President Donald Trump has begun forging his own legacy in the ongoing wars on terror. On the same weekend that he signed his executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, U.S. Navy SEALs, alongside UAE special forces, were preparing to raid Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets in Yemen, the first U.S.-led ground action in the country since 2014. While over a dozen al-Qaeda fighters were reportedly killed, so too was a Navy SEAL, along with an unverified number of civilians. Looming in the background was an all-too-familiar apparition: that of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric and propagandist, killed by a U.S. drone strike on September, 30, 2011, while traveling through al-Jawf, Yemen.

As reports of the travel ban’s impact on U.S. residents emerged, excerpts from one of Awlaki’s final speeches from 2010 began reappearing in online forums frequented by his admirers. In the speech, Awlaki, whose notoriety has grown since his death, observed how forever war frustrates and corrupts the attitudes of those that wage it. In light of Trump’s travel ban—and not for the first time—Awlaki’s seemingly prophetic words about the inevitable course of the wars on terror seemed to ring true:

Don’t be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters. Today, with the war between Muslims and the West escalating, you cannot count on the message of solidarity you may get from a civic group or a political party, or the word of support you hear from a kind neighbor or a nice co-worker. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!

Soon after the raid, word broke that one of the civilians killed in the operation was eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s daughter. Her brother, Abdulrahman, was similarly killed via U.S. drone strike two weeks after his father. Photos of the bright-eyed girl soon appeared online, often accompanied by a quote from her grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, describing how she was shot in the neck and “suffered for two hours.” Trump’s pre-election suggestion that the families of terrorists were fair game notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that the raid deliberately targeted civilians or the Awlaki child. In the fog of war, civilian deaths do occur.

But when they have occurred during the war on terror, they often become part of the propaganda of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The death of Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, at the hands of his own government, provided him with a potent martyrdom story; Nawar and Abdulrahman are now part of that story. This is how good propaganda works: by fusing facts, lies, and coincidence, to create stories that shape how audiences perceive the world. Awlaki will continue to be drawn upon, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of both the West’s infidelity to its principles when dealing with its own Muslim citizens, and the destruction that results from a war on terror without end.

Awlaki’s charismatic appeal is rooted in his message and image. Despite lacking a formal sharia education, he is often presented as a 21st century “warrior-scholar,” arguably the most revered type of leader in the jihadist milieu due to their fusion of jurisprudential knowledge and frontline fighting. Like many charismatic historical figures, his admirers see in him an inspirational martyr. They also see a reflection of themselves: a child of the West, a self-described “preacher of Islam involved in non-violent activism,” until the “American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims” changed him. His is a personal narrative filled with truths, half-truths, and myths. Nonetheless, it resonates deeply.

Read the full article by Dr Haroro J. Ingram in The Atlantic.

Haroro J. Ingram is a Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations.

Craig Whiteside is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College Monterey.

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