The apparent killing of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone on Friday, Sept. 30, is not the end of this unique figure, perhaps one of the most misunderstood men in the annals of terrorism. Many questions remain about his exact role within al Qaeda, in particular his status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But even the most hyped descriptions of Awlaki's "operational" capabilities pale in comparison with the force of his personality. Ultimately, his legacy will not be a litany of bombs exploded and airplanes hijacked, but of hearts and minds moved to hate.
There is no question that Awlaki filled some sort of operational niche within al Qaeda. He personally emailed one would-be Western militant after another, urging them to cast aside all other ambitions in favor of taking violent action in their hometowns. He was allegedly sighted at AQAP training camps. He personally guided the 2009 underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to AQAP's bomb-maker and claimed credit for the 2010 UPS cargo-plane bomb plot, mocking the United States for spending billions of dollars to prevent an attack that cost only $4,200 to mount.
But Awlaki's exploits as a working terrorist are small potatoes compared with his impact as a personality, a storyteller, and a manipulator of minds.
Before most Americans ever heard of Awlaki the terrorist, Muslim Americans were very familiar with Awlaki, the inspirational speaker. Over the course of several years, Awlaki issued an incredible body of work that -- on the surface -- had little to do with terrorism or al Qaeda.
His primary format was audio, where his compelling voice and personality could best serve his message. Among his works are more than 50 CDs relating the life of the Prophet Mohammed, 21 CDs on the other prophets of Islam, 22 CDs on the afterlife, at least 33 CDs on the companions of Mohammed, several important lectures concerned primarily with validating violent interpretations of jihad, and finally open calls to violence and an explicit embrace of terrorism.
Awlaki took traditional Islamic sources and breathed life into them, transforming religious texts into gripping and emotional stories, often with substantial embellishment. He tailored his idiom and analogy to Western language and culture, but his most important skill was the ability to transform often skeletal sources into gripping tales.
Telling a good story is not necessarily heroic, but it counts for a lot. Awlaki wasn't like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or AQAP's emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. These true leaders of al Qaeda were renowned for their kinetic achievements, whether military or terrorist. Their allure and their appeal were built entirely on their credibility as supposedly "holy" warriors.