Awlaki, in contrast, was well established as an Islamic teacher before he turned to the dark side. Although some dispute the quality of his scholarship, it was good enough to make him a success. His popularity was indisputable.
If the first component of Awlaki's legacy is his body of work, the second is surely the story he tried to tell about himself. That tale would be familiar to viewers of classic American Westerns such as Shane and Unforgiven. It is the story of a man driven over the edge by injustice until, finally provoked beyond his ability to bear, he picks up a gun and wreaks vengeance.
This narrative is fundamentally false, but that doesn't mean it won't endure. Awlaki had his fingers in al Qaeda's cookie jar for a long time before he came out with an explicit call to violence. But his lectures and his public statements allow his supporters to argue for the view of Awlaki as a genuine martyr.
Martyrdom is nothing new to jihadi terrorism -- in fact, it's a major selling point. But Awlaki's martyrdom has a different context. For most Americans, bin Laden sprang into existence as a full-blown militant. What little experience bin Laden had of life before jihad is a forgotten footnote in most accounts.
Not only did Awlaki have a life before jihad, but he lived that life in the United States, as a citizen and (at least on the surface) as someone laboring to forgive and understand the land where he was born. Even as he secretly met with 9/11 hijackers and friends of blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, he was crafting a public persona as a moderate Muslim. Through his pulpit in San Diego and later Falls Church, Virginia, and through lectures distributed on CDs and over the Internet, he reached at least thousands of people with devotional stories that were overtly moderate, or at least embedded his more extreme views deep in the text.
With his alleged death, the narrative that Awlaki wanted to sell us is now complete: the reasonable man, pushed too far, who reluctantly took up the gun and was finally killed by the enemy he dared face.
The effects of this story will likely reverberate for years to come; in the short term, Awlaki's death will probably elevate interest in his entire body of work, from beginning to end.
All this highlights the peculiar dilemma of how the West deals with terrorists of al Qaeda's stripe. Al Qaeda has predicated its war against the United States on the premise that the West is persecuting Muslims and attacking Muslim countries. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have reinforced that idea, for some people, and the sanctioning of the "targeted killing" campaign against Awlaki raises especially unfortunate overtones concerning due process for American citizens.