American Muslim ideologues living abroad are using their online pulpits to reach and influence audiences in the U.S. with ideologies of extreme intolerance and violence. Through English-language propaganda distributed on a variety of online platforms, these ideologues have not only encouraged attacks in the U.S., but also recruited followers to join terrorist groups overseas.
"The radicalization of U.S. citizens by jihadist recruiters abroad is a very real and growing concern that the FBI and the U.S. Government as a whole must deal with," according to a December 2009 FBI statement.
Through Web sites, forums, social networking sites and various other online platforms, Omar Hammami, born in Alabama, Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico, and Adam Yahiye Gadahn, born in California, have been able to spread sermons, literature and other materials that not only depict the West at war with Islam, but that also seek to influence Americans to respond with violence. In fact, all three ideologues influenced two Americans arrested in June 2010 who allegedly planned to kill U.S. troops who they thought would soon be deployed to Somalia. Court documents have alleged that the men watched videos and listened to audio recordings featuring Hammami, al-Awlaki and Gadahn.
On March 7, 2010, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American Muslim convert from California who joined Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, called on Muslims in the West to follow in the footsteps of Nidal Malik Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people at the Fort Hood army base in November 2009.
In a video titled "A Call to Arms," Gadahn, who has been featured in numerous videos produced by Al Qaeda's media wing Al Sahab since 2004, encouraged Americans and other Westerners to carry out any attack they could. "I am calling on every honest and vigilant Muslim in the countries of the Zionist-Crusader alliance in general and America, Britain and Israel in particular to prepare to play his due role in responding to and repelling the aggression of the enemies of Islam."
While it is difficult to gauge the degree to which Gadahn's videos have contributed to the radicalization of American Muslim extremists, there is some evidence that Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. born Muslim cleric living in Yemen who distributes radical sermons online, has had an influence on extremists in the West.
Al-Awlaki, whose sermons and other materials have been accessed on his now-defunct English blog, as well as on social networking sites and other English-language sites and forums, communicated with Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood gunman. Prior to the attack, al-Awlaki reportedly exchanged more than a dozen emails with Hasan, who asked al-Awlaki questions about the permissibility of suicide attacks with civilian casualties. Four days after the shooting, al-Awlaki expressed his support for the attack in a blog entry praising Hasan as a "hero" who "did the right thing."
The extent of al-Awlaki's online reach can also be measured by the number of convicted terrorists in the U.S., Canada and Britain who were found in possession of his materials. Members of the so-called Toronto 18, a group of 18 Canadian residents who plotted to blow up government buildings in Canada, reportedly watched videos of al-Awlaki's sermons. British authorities also found al-Awlaki's materials in the possession of Aabid Hussain Khan, a British man who distributed terrorist related materials online, as well as in the possession of accused accomplices of the 2005 London suicide bombers.
Al-Awlaki's influence apparently also reached the Nigerian man who attempted to detonate a bomb on a U.S.-bound transatlantic flight. Prior to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted attack on Christmas Day in 2009, he reportedly followed al-Awlaki's blog online and also met with him in person in Yemen.
In addition, the five men who conspired to attack the Fort Dix army base in New Jersey in 2007 were in possession of one of al-Awlaki's sermons, titled "Constants on the Path of Jihad." The same sermon was discovered in the possession of Mohamoud Hassan, a Somali-American who traveled to Somalia in November 2008 to train with Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda linked terrorist organization.
Another American, 25-year-old Muslim convert from Alabama named Omar Hammami (a.k.a. Abu Mansour al-Amriki), has appeared in a number of online videos recruiting young Somali-American men "to come and live the life of a mujaheed [Muslim warrior]" in Somalia and join Al Shabaab.
Since Hammami first appeared in these Al Shabaab videos, at least 20 Somali-Americans have joined Al Shabaab. In fact, several of these Somali-Americans have taken part in attacks led by Hammami, according to American law enforcement. For example, Shirwa Ahmed, an American from Minneapolis whose suicide attack was part of a series of coordinated attacks that targeted the United Nations compound, the Ethiopian Consulate, and the presidential palace in Hargeisa, killing 24 people, reportedly appeared in a March 2009 video with Hammami attacking Ethiopian troops. In that video, Hammami used the attack as an opportunity to encourage other Americans to travel to Somalia and fight with him. "If you can encourage more of your children and more of your neighbors and anyone around you to send people… to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us," he said.
Hammami himself may have been recruited on the Internet to engage in terrorist activities. Prior to his involvement with Al Shabaab, Hammami joined the Islamic Network, an online forum where he met Daniel Maldonado, an American who has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison for training with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia. Maldonado has admitted to U.S. federal authorities that he and Hammami planned to move their families to Somalia to live in an Islamic state and "also talked about possibly joining the jihad if we went," he said. Months later, Hammami moved to Somalia and joined the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a network of Islamic militant tribes that controlled southern and central Somalia, and soon after became a central figure in Al Shabaab.
Not surprisingly, Hammami, Awlaki and Gadahn espouse anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric to justify violent actions against the Jews, Israel and Israel's allies, particularly the United States. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel themes have fueled a number of plots and conspiracies against Jewish and Israeli targets in the U.S. by American Muslim extremists.
In an Al Shabaab audio recording released in July 2009 as a response to President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo the previous month, Hammami expressed support for attacks against American interests because of "the oppression and murder of the Palestinians, which was made possible by the support and weaponry of America." Fighting oppression and tyranny by the U.S. and Israel, Hammami said, "is the cause that we are willing and striving to die to protect."
Al-Awlaki also used America's support for Israel as justification for the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound transatlantic flight on Christmas Day in 2009. "I support what he did, as America supports Israel's killing of Palestinians," al-Awlaki reportedly stated.
Gadahn similarly encouraged Muslims to attack Jewish and American interests. In June 2009, for example, he declared that "Zio-Crusader interests everywhere are legitimate targets for us." Gadahn also stated that the mujahideen, or Muslim warriors, are supported with "weapons, funds and Jihad against the Jews and their allies everywhere."