U.S.-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki released an audio message in which he calls on American Muslims to question their loyalty to the U.S. government "that is leading the war on Islam." Officials say it is the first time Awlaki has combined his propaganda efforts with a call to action.
By now, Anwar al-Awlaki has become one of the world's most famous imams.
He is the American-born radical cleric who has been living in Yemen and has been the subject of a U.S. manhunt for years. The 9/11 Commission linked him to several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. He has connections to the man charged with the Fort Hood shootings last November and to the suspect in the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
And now he has released a new message on the Internet in which he calls on Muslims in America to make a stark choice: between their religion and their country.
The latest audio message, which U.S. intelligence officials confirm is Awlaki, is nothing if not blunt: "To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with the nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes that have been committed against your own brothers and sisters?"
That excerpt of the tape, first obtained by CNN, is only the beginning.
U.S. intelligence officials tell NPR this is the first time that Awlaki has taken direct aim at America and tailored his message to Muslims here. The way they see it, Awlaki is now combining his strength as a propagandist with what they believe is his new role with al-Qaida — recruiting for terrorist attacks.
He uses strong language: "How can you have your loyalty to a government that is leading the war on Islam and Muslims?" he said in the message.
Awlaki sets himself apart from other imams because he was born in and lived in the United States for 21 years, and he speaks unaccented English. In his effort to identify with American Muslims, this latest audio tape tries to play on his background by reminding listeners of his American roots.
"I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism," he says. "However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim. And I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding every other able Muslim."
In other words, in his view Muslims in the U.S. must choose Islam over America. In another part of the tape that was not released, intelligence officials say Awlaki called on his followers to make "jihad as American as apple pie ... and as English as afternoon tea."
The idea that jihad could become so common has officials worried and has them focused on what they might have missed. Among their concerns is the possibility that Awlaki could be finding followers among the 50,000 Americans now living in Yemen.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said as much during a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
"We're attempting to identify those persons," Mueller said. "We're also attempting to identify persons who were radicalized by al-Awlaki or others overseas, never traveled overseas but have been radicalized to the point that they want to commit terrorist attacks against the United States."
The list of people willing to commit attacks is growing. There is the suspected Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan. There were 18 e-mails between him and Awlaki before the shooting attack last year. The attack killed 13 people and wounded 30 others.
Intelligence officials also believe that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, trained with Awlaki in Yemen. Abdulmutallab discovered Awlaki's videos on the Web.
Mueller said in his view the use of the Internet in recruitment is the most dangerous wrinkle in all of this.
"Everybody will tell you that the Internet, the influence of the Internet, not just in radicalization, but moving from radicalization to organization to undertaking terrorist attacks is the greatest, most serious phenomenon that has resulted, I believe, in many of the radicalization cases we've seen in the United States," he said.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey man picked up as a suspected al-Qaida recruit in Yemen told authorities that he went there hoping to meet and train with Awlaki. He had found Awlaki's sermons, like the one just released, on the Internet.
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