Anwar al-Awlaki (born April 22, 1971 in Las Cruces, New Mexico) is an American Muslim lecturer, spiritual leader, and former imam believed to be a senior talent recruiter and motivator “for al-Qaeda and all of its franchises.” With a blog and a Facebook page, he has been described as the “bin Laden of the Internet.” He is currently believed to be in Yemen and has been linked to two recent terrorist events (Ft. Hood shooter and the underwear bomber). In this post we’ll analyze Awlaki’s evolution, influence and momentum on the web.
Below we can see his links to these events are evident in the web.
When we analyze al-Awlaki with Recorded Future open source intelligence data we see some interesting trends. Below we see a time-line showing Awlaki’s momentum online (the curved gray line) from June 2009-June 2010. We can see that at the beginning of 2009 Awlaki had very little notoriety on the Internet — was able to gain momentum following two high profile terror incidents, and is currently losing momentum.
On 07APR10 news broke that a C/K order was issued for Awlaki, and one could assume that this is likely a contributor to the drop in his momentum online:
U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki added to CIA target list
The Obama administration has authorized the CIA to capture or kill the New Mexico-born Muslim cleric believed to be in Yemen. He is thought to have taken on an operational role in terrorist plots…(LA Times)
The Ft. Hood shooting took place on 5NOV09, this was the first time Awlaki was publicly linked to a terrorist incident since 9/11 (when hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar arrived in San Diego in mid-2000, they attended a mosque Awlaki ministered at). Even after 9/11 he was not well known enough to garner major media attention or a large following. Note the low momentum between 2001-2006 below.
The above visualizations show momentum (curved line) as well as media sources (stacked bars; red=blogs, blue=mainstream media). We can see that traditional news-media coverage of Awlaki was very high following the Ft. Hood shooting, while his blog coverage was relatively low. However, following the Ft. Hood attack, he picked up significant momentum in the blogosphere heading into DEC09. Awlaki may have gained such momentum because he is one a handful of radical clerics who have the respect of traditional extremists (think bin Laden and crew) while also having the ability to reach out to the English speaking world (as he proved through his talks with Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nadal Hassan).
On 28DEC09, following consultation with Awlaki, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the underwear bomber) attempted to detonate an explosive device while on-board a flight to Detroit. (See spike below) As the trend line shows, following the attempted airline bombing, traditional media was all over the event; which may have lead to his increase in coverage on the blogosphere for the next 2 months.
He continued to grow in references in blogs throughout March, however, on 07APR10 the United States Government issued the C/K order (a first of it’s kind against a US citizen) for Awlaki. Following the issue of the C/K mission, his traditional media covered increased, while his coverage in blogs decreased (see below). It’s possible this shows the impact of this policy decision and announcement in the press. It’s also likely that those following Awlaki’s activities have realized that they could be targeted for C/K missions or targeted for surveillance. It remains to be seen if he was able to inspire any other terrorist actors, or what will happen to his trend should he be captured or killed.