On Tuesday, Aug. 9, Naser Abdo, an American soldier, was indicted for plotting a terrorist attack against soldiers stationed at Fort Hood -- just the latest in a series of U.S. citizens who have been inspired to violence by the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who went rogue and today threatens the United States from his father's country of Yemen.
Awlaki is clearly a dangerous man. As a country, the United States spends a lot of time talking about, worrying about, and trying to kill him. Unfortunately, attention runs fast, but not deep.
On July 27, Salon's Glenn Greenwald argued that Awlaki represented "the face of moderate Islam" and "the opposite of [Osama] bin Laden" before Sept. 11, 2001. By Greenwald's account, Awlaki was subsequently radicalized by America's wars and foreign policies. This conclusion was based on exactly two sources -- an interview conducted with Awlaki in 2001 and another interview dated 2009.
On the same day, Navy SEAL Adm. Eric T. Olson, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, discussed the threat posed by Awlaki. "He's a dual-passport holder who has lived in the United States," Olson said, "so he understands us much better than we understand him."
In reality, Awlaki has given us a shocking abundance of material with which we can judge and understand him. He has recorded more than 100 hours of audio lectures, more than bin Laden, almost all of them in colloquial English. He has also figured in a long trail of investigations, including FBI and 9/11 Commission documents that are available to the public. Taken together, these sources reveal a portrait of a conflicted man whose path to radicalization started in the 1990s and steadily progressed to his present-day status as a terrorist icon.
Awlaki is not difficult to know, as Olson suggests, and he is not a two-dimensional talking point, as Greenwald would have us believe. He is a man, complicated and at times confounding, but accessible through his words and actions.
Awlaki was born in the United States, but spent his formative teen years in Yemen, during the height of the jihad against the Soviets. He reportedly grew up watching videos of the mujahideen as entertainment, in much the same way his American contemporaries watched Knight Rider.
He returned to the United States to study engineering at Colorado State University. According to his roommate, Awlaki spent one summer at a jihadi training camp in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, though that claim has not been independently corroborated. When he returned from Afghanistan, he was more interested in religion than engineering, and he began a career as an imam, or Muslim preacher.
Preaching in Colorado during the mid-1990s, Awlaki's stirring sermons on jihad reportedly moved a Saudi student to drop out of college and join jihadists in Bosnia and later Chechnya, eventually meeting death in battle.
When Awlaki moved to a bigger congregation in San Diego in the late 1990s, he inspired ever greater devotion in public, while failing his Islamic principles in private with arrests for soliciting prostitutes and hanging around a schoolyard, according to 9/11 Commission records. He also met with an al Qaeda facilitator named Ziyad Khaleel. The nature of their relationship remains unknown, but the FBI subsequently opened an investigation into Awlaki.
That investigation was closed for lack of evidence -- precious months too soon. In early 2000, two men arrived at Awlaki's San Diego mosque -- Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the 9/11 hijackers.