Operating from Yemen, the US-born Islamic preacher has been dubbed the ‘bin Laden of the internet’ having been linked to numerous extremists charged with terrorism offences in Britain and elsewhere.
He has lived in Britain and America, speaks to his followers in impeccable English over the internet and is one of the key figures of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP).
Awlaki gave advice to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected Detroit bomber, who tried to blow himself up using a device in his underpants on Christmas Day 2009.
US security sources have reportedly said there is “concrete evidence” that Awlaki recruited Abdulmutallab, who lived in Britain while studying at University College London.
Material gathered at UK properties linked to Abdulmutallab–who is being held in the US on terrorism charges–allegedly suggests he was an avid follower of Awlaki’s blog and website.
Most recently, Awlaki has been linked to Rajib Karim, the former British Airways graduate trainee, who planned to smuggle a bomb onto a transatlantic flight.
Karim communicated online with Awlaki to orchestrate plans to attack the airline’s infrastructure and detonate a bomb on a passenger plane.
The 31-year-old, who worked in BA’s IT department after coming to Britain from Bangladesh, had applied for a cabin crew position in the hope that he could carry explosives aboard a flight to the US.
MI5 discovered his plans after investigating the British links of Awlaki.
Awlaki questioned Karim about security procedures at BA during a series of internet exchanges in January and February last year.
In one response, Karim told Awlaki: “I can work with the bros [sic] to find out the possibilities of shipping a package to a US–bound plane.”
Karim was jailed for 30 years in March after admitting a string of terrorism charges and being found guilty of four counts of preparing to commit acts of terrorism or assisting others to do so.
Awlaki quotes from Dickens, dismisses Shakespeare and David Attenborough, and recently declared: “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.”
Born in New Mexico, he grew up in Yemen and moved to the US to study civil engineering in Colorado and a master’s degree in education.
He preached at mosques in San Diego and Virginia where he was considered conservative.
After September 11, however, it emerged that three of the hijackers had attended his mosques and one investigator said he believed Awlaki was their “spiritual adviser”.
Awlaki built up a base of extremist followers while living in London for two years until 2004 giving lectures at mosques, universities and closed study circles.
He developed a following among terrorists, including the July 7, July 21 and trans-Atlantic airline bombers.
He has also been linked to Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in a rampage at the Fort Hood military base in Texas in November last year. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, New York, said he was influenced by the preacher.
He has also been mentioned in recent speeches by the heads of MI5 and MI6. Sir John Sawers, the chief of MI6, described Awlaki as an “al-Qaeda leader” who “broadcasts propaganda and terrorist instruction over the internet”. Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5, said of Awlaki: “His influence is all the wider because he preaches and teaches in English.”
Awlaki’s sidekick, an American named Samir Khan, is also of significant concern because of the slick online magazine he produces called Inspire, which has articles such as “how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”.
It is the inspiration the pair are offering to “lone wolf” operators that is causing MI5 and MI6 concern.