Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man who inspired the Boston bombings

By Peter Bergen and David Sterman
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Police say the dead suspect, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/21/us/tamerlan-tsarnaev-timeline/index.html'>Tamerlan Tsarnaev</a>, is the man the FBI identified as Suspect 1. He was killed during the shootout with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2013. He is pictured here at the 2010 New England Golden Gloves. Police say the dead suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is the man the FBI identified as Suspect 1. He was killed during the shootout with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2013. He is pictured here at the 2010 New England Golden Gloves.
HIDE CAPTION
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen says a terrorist killed in a U.S. drone strike continues to influence jihadists
  • He says it was easier for U.S. to kill Anwar al-Awlaki than to eliminate support for his ideas
  • Suspect in Boston bombings downloaded al-Awlaki's articles and his magazine, Bergen says
  • Bergen: Many other charges have been brought against followers of al-Awlaki

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a research assistant at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- One year after the Boston Marathon bombings and almost three years after his death in a CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born American cleric who was an operational leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, continues to be a major influence on violent jihadist extremists in the United States.

Even in death, al-Awlaki is the key cleric in the English-speaking world of radical Islam that militants are turning to for inspiration. His many lectures and interviews are still widely available on the Internet, and they are in colloquial English to boot. Al-Awlaki, for instance, influenced the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where his father was studying agricultural economics at New Mexico State University as a Fulbright scholar. As an undergrad, al-Awlaki attended Colorado State University, studying engineering. In 1994 while living in Colorado, al-Awlaki married his first wife, a cousin from Yemen. A year later, al-Awlaki moved to San Diego, where he took up a job as a cleric at a local mosque.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

By his own account, it was during this period that al-Awlaki began to develop a hatred for the United States, feelings he was quite adept at keeping to himself. This hatred was sparked by the first Gulf War, which followed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Six months later a massive American army based in Saudi Arabia expelled Hussein's troops from Kuwait. After Hussein's armies were ignominiously pushed out of Kuwait, a large-scale U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia continued for many years. For politicized, fundamentalist Muslims such as al-Awlaki, the presence of thousands of "infidel" American troops on the holy land of Saudi Arabia was a deep irritant.

During his years living in San Diego and later in Virginia, al-Awlaki met with three of the 9/11 hijackers in the months before the attacks.

Almost a decade later he also gave the order to Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the "underwear bomber" to take down an American plane with a bomb. AbdulMutallab ignited his bomb on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 as it flew over the suburbs of Detroit, but luckily the device failed to detonate properly.

This image released by SITE Intelligence Group, shows Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a CIA drone strike on September 30, 2011.
This image released by SITE Intelligence Group, shows Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a CIA drone strike on September 30, 2011.

As a result of the operational role al-Awlaki was playing in al Qaeda, President Barack Obama gave the authorization for his death, and on the morning of September 30, 2011, CIA drones locked on to the vehicle he was traveling in Yemen and fired missiles that killed the cleric.

Obama called the death of al-Awlaki a "major blow" to al-Qaeda in Yemen, which had now lost its "leader of external operations." But it turns out that killing the militant cleric was easier than killing his ideas that linger on in the virtual world.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother who survived a shootout with police shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, had downloaded articles written by al-Awlaki, according to the indictment against him. Tsarnaev also downloaded the first issue of Inspire magazine, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-language webzine, which al-Awlaki helped to produce.

Law enforcement officials linked the pipe bombs allegedly used by the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombings to step-by-step instructions for how to build similar pipe bombs that were printed in that first issue of Inspire.

How Al-Awlaki was killed
Al Qaeda spokesman killed

The Tsarnaev brothers may not be the only individuals in the United States to have been influenced by al-Awlaki. According to a count by the New America Foundation, since 9/11, 52 American citizens or U.S. residents indicted in a jihadist terrorist-related crime or that have been killed have cited al-Awlaki as an influence, possessed his propaganda or were in communication or met with him.

Al-Awlaki was in e-mail communication, for instance, with Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.

Nor are the Tsarnaevs the only Americans likely to be influenced by Inspire magazine. According to a count by the New America Foundation, at least 16 individuals indicted since the magazine's first issue in 2010 have possessed or cited Inspire as an influence.

Even today, court documents continue to cite al-Awlaki and Inspire as influencing factors in terrorism cases. Eighteen individuals indicted in the United States since al-Awlaki's death in 2011 have cited his influence or possessed his propaganda.

In June, for instance, Justin Kaliebe, an 18-year-old New Yorker, pleaded guilty to attempting to travel to Yemen to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. According to his plea agreement, Kaliebe told an undercover officer, "My standard is Sheik Anwar Al-Awlaki and Sheik Osama (bin Laden), both who bore witness to the truth."

In November, the government indicted Basit Sheikh, a 29-year-old living in North Carolina, and charged him with attempting to provide material support to al-Nusra Front, a Syrian al Qaeda affiliate. The criminal complaint alleges that Sheikh posted a link on Facebook to a propaganda video narrated by al-Awlaki.

In December, the government filed an indictment against Terry Loewen, a 58-year-old man from Wichita, Kansas, alleging he attempted to explode a car bomb at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The criminal complaint alleges that Loewen told an undercover FBI informant, "Brothers like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki are a great inspiration to me," and, "I have read Anwar Al-Awlaki's 44 ways of Jihad, and like everything l've ever read of his, it's very informative."

In March, Nicholas Teausant, a 20-year-old from Acampo, California, was arrested and charged with attempting to travel to fight in Syria. The criminal complaint alleges that Teausant's computer contained copies and excerpts of Inspire.

It is not just the U.S. government that continues to view al-Awlaki as maintaining, even in death, his power to influence. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to publish Inspire. The latest issue appeared in March featuring a purported interview with al-Awlaki made before his death in which he urged attacks on Western civilians. Al Qaeda and individuals motivated by the group's ideology continue to view al-Awlaki as an important voice so his writings, available on the Internet, will likely continue to crop up in terrorism cases for the foreseeable future.

What can be done to counter this? An implausible approach is a "takedown" effort. Trying to eliminate al-Awlaki's writings on "holy war" on the Internet just won't work. Eliminate them on some sites, and they will simply pop up on others.

Another more plausible approach would be for English-speaking Muslim clerics to contest publicly and widely al-Awlaki's arguments for justified holy wars against non-Muslims. So far such efforts remain limited both in number and reach.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT