The Last Jihadi Superstar

October 30, 2020

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad (Harvard University Press, 2020)

I take a special interest in Anwar al-Awlaki because he fooled me twice. He came to my attention in 2008 through his personal website, Imam Anwar’s Blog, where he detailed his recent stay in a Yemeni prison, lamented the persecution of Muslims around the world, and flaunted his Islamic scholarly credentials. I judged the content as semi-militant: It had much of the victim rhetoric I knew from al-Qaeda propaganda, but without the explicit calls for violence. Compared with the other stuff I was reading at the time, it was softcore, so I just made a mental note and moved on.

Later that winter, when the U.S. government voiced concerns about Awlaki’s radicalizing influence on young Islamists in the United States, I was skeptical. More hype from the U.S. counter-terrorism establishment, I remember thinking. How can this guy, who writes book reviews and blog posts about prison food, be a top-tier terrorist threat? I suspected he got outsize attention because he was one of only a few hardline Islamists writing in English.



This was my first mistake: to underestimate the man’s hostile intentions. It would later emerge that Awlaki had been directly and indirectly involved in a series of terrorist conspiracies in the United States and the United Kingdom. From his hideout in Yemen, he had communicated directly with a number of individuals, persuading them to perpetrate attacks in the West. Later, when I served as an expert witness in the trial of one of Awlaki’s interlocutors, I got to see some of the intercepted messages in the raw. My jaw dropped at just how explicit and audacious Awlaki’s instructions had been.

My second mistake was to misjudge his ideological appeal. In the late 2000s, it was inconceivable to me that an English-language preacher might become a major jihadi ideologue. Until then, the movers and shakers had all been based in the Muslim world — either commanders in the field, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or religious scholars, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Preachers in the West — such as the London-based Abu Hamza al-Misri and Abu Qatada al-Filastini — had a local following but no global influence. Even as I revised my views about Awlaki’s operational role, I doubted his lectures and declarations would stick.

Wrong again. As the manhunt for him intensified in 2010–2011, Awlaki upped his propaganda game, showed off his Arabic skills, and emerged as the second-most charismatic al-Qaeda leader after bin Laden. The killing of Awlaki in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011 did little to stem his appeal. His many writings and recorded lectures spread widely online and would turn up on the hard drives of numerous terrorism suspects in the following decade. Today, Awlaki stands as one of the most influential jihadi ideologues of all time. My personal view is that if he had lived, he might well have dethroned Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda.

Awlaki’s rise to fame is as mysterious as it was spectacular, for he was really only active as a fully fledged al-Qaeda ideologue for three years, from 2008 to 2011. You read that right: 36 months. How is this even possible? What did he have that others lacked? More broadly: What makes a jihadi superstar?

Much has been written about Awlaki over the years, but it is only now, with the publication of Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’ Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, that we are getting close to an answer. Meleagrou-Hitchens, a lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, has spent the better part of a decade poring over Awlaki’s ideological production, interviewing his former acquaintances, and sifting through the historical record. The result is not only the definitive work on Awlaki, but an impressive text that marries the readability of a trade press biography and the analytical rigor of an academic monograph.

As Meleagrou-Hitchens makes clear in the introduction, Incitement is not a biography of Awlaki, but a study of his ideas and their impact. In fact, only the first of the book’s eight chapters deals with the man’s basic life story. The following three deal with his beliefs and messaging, and the last four include case studies of militants in the West who were strongly influenced by him, such as Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab, Nidal Hassan, and Zachary Adam Chesser. The choice is well-justified, because Awlaki is important primarily because of his ideological impact in his later years, and Scott Shane has already covered the life story in some detail. If I feel slightly snubbed by the short biographical section, it’s because Meleagrou-Hitchens’ findings and assessments about Awlaki’s trajectory are so interesting and counterintuitive. He shows, for example, that the Yemeni-American preacher was more radical in his early years than is often suggested, and that the FBI’s hunt for him in the early 2000s and the Yemeni prison experience in 2007 were not the radicalizing factors they are often made out to be. I would have loved to hear more from Meleagrou-Hitchens the biographer.

This is not to detract from the contribution of Meleagrou-Hitchens the scholar of jihadi ideology. To simplify a detailed and nuanced analysis: The author attributes Awlaki’s influence to a set of innovations in both the form and content of his messaging. Awlaki notably introduced storytelling as a key rhetorical device and used sira, tales of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, to a greater extent than perhaps any other radical ideologue before him. Of course, all Islamic preachers sprinkle their sermons with stories, but Awlaki turned the formula on its head and told stories sprinkled with sermons. He perfected his art in the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, when he gave hundreds of lectures in the United States and United Kingdom about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Recordings of these lectures, initially sold as CD box sets and later disseminated online, became hugely popular among Muslims in the West, who had not heard these stories told in English in such an accessible and engaging way. The stories were largely apolitical, so they appealed to a wide audience and made Awlaki appear like a regular Islamic preacher without militant inclinations. In the late 2000s, when Awlaki sought to convey a more radical message, he used the storytelling formula to great effect.

On the content side, Awlaki developed a message in the late 2000s that was exceptionally well-attuned to the grievances and concerns of young Muslims in the West. Using academic tools and concepts, Meleagrou-Hitchens dissects Awlaki’s ideological production to show that it was optimally designed for mobilization in a Western context. Awlaki offered crystal-clear collective action frames: a diagnosis (there’s a war on Islam), a prognosis (Muslims should fight back), and a motivation (look, someone’s already doing it). He painted the world in black and white, with Muslims and non-Muslims as irreconcilable enemies, and stressed the unity of the Muslim nation, or umma. In the process, he combined Western discourses about human rights, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism with notions of Islamic solidarity and other references that appealed to his listeners’ cultural sense of belonging. Many other Islamist preachers trade in this form of populist identity politics, but his was particularly agile and poignant, filled with fresh examples from the news and popular culture.

Meleagrou-Hitchens’ argument is very compelling, although it does run into a common epistemological problem in the study of ideology, namely that we cannot know whether a particular discursive feature was conducive to mobilization without comparing it to other features that did not have the same effect. When we study an ideological message or rhetorical style that we know had a big impact in isolation, any claim about what it was about the message that produced the impact becomes difficult to disprove. There is no easy solution, and my own work suffers from the same problem. Meleagrou-Hitchens’ solution — to analyze the reception of Awlaki’s message in great detail (Part 2 of the book) — is about as good as gets, although methodological purists will still have reservations. That said, a world run by econometricians would be boring, and the book’s analysis is still extremely valuable.

In the case of Awlaki, there is one hypothesis that features in Incitement that could have gotten even more in-depth, explicit treatment. It is charisma, that good, old-fashioned concept that we all recognize but cannot capture with measuring instruments. If you have ever listened through a lecture by Awlaki, you will know what I mean.

For this review I went back to my archive and put on one of his lectures again. There still is something instantly appealing about him. Whether it’s the slightly nasal tone, the crisp locution, or the tempo and dramatization, I cannot say, only that there is a humanity in the voice that makes me feel at ease and want to spend time with the speaker. The language also has a verbal agility and a lightheartedness that ooze social intelligence. Add the absolutely beautiful classical Arabic and you have an extremely compelling voice in the broad sense of the word.

I can’t specify or quantify any of this, and it could be that it is entirely subjective. All I can say is that in my 20 years of studying jihadism, I have listened to hundreds of jihadi preachers, and there is only one other person who had the same instant likeability as Awlaki. That person’s name was Osama bin Laden. (My own biographical subject, Abdallah Azzam, does not come close). It is also noteworthy that it is primarily Awlaki’s lectures, not his written texts, that seem to have made the biggest impact. Moreover, the fact that he enjoyed commercial success with his history lectures in the mainstream proselytization market — where competition is cutthroat — suggests he was special. Shoot me if you want, social scientists, but this guy had the X factor.

The question, of course, is who will be the next jihadi leader with mass appeal. Lord knows the movement needs one. The current bench is abysmal: Zawahiri has the charisma of a block of wood, while the new ISIL leader Amir al-Mawla has yet to issue a single statement. However, it could be that we will never see another Awlaki or bin Laden, since whoever shows sign of being one will be marked for assassination by the U.S. military.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics and effectiveness of leadership decapitation — a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy for the past 15 years — it is probably changing the sociology of the jihadi movement. It is reasonable to speculate, for example, that the systematic removal of al-Qaeda’s most charismatic leaders facilitated the rise of the Islamic State, that faceless horde of young militants with few ideas to offer beyond utopianism and creative execution methods. Jihadism has become more faceless, and it is hard to picture any current Islamic State figure becoming the subject of a monograph in the future. The age of the jihadi superstar may have ended with Anwar al-Awlaki.



Thomas Hegghammer is senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. He is the author of The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad (Cambridge, 2020).

Image: Courtesy Scott Shane/AQAP Inspire magazine