Small Wars Journal

American Jihadists: Three Case Studies of American Citizens Who Chose Extremism over America

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 3:48am

American Jihadists: Three Case Studies of American Citizens Who Chose Extremism over America

Sam Read


Speaking in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, President Obama described the changing ways in which terrorist groups target the United States: “as we’ve become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.” (Gilsinan, 2015).  This reality has played out many times in recent years- large coordinated attacks are rare in the US, but small attacks carried out by individuals occur more frequently. These attacks are sometimes carried out by US citizens, and after the incident there is always some debate over how the individual became willing to work and fight in support of a terrorist group against the US.

This paper will look at three of these incidents, and the people involved, and will attempt to analyze why they did what they did. The first case study will be Muhammad Dakhlalla and Jaelyn Young, two Mississippi college students who were arrested at an airport in 2015 when they attempted to fly to Syria to join ISIS. Why would two American citizens, having grown up in middle class America, and with education and opportunities before them, reject all of that to join ISIS? The second case study will be Nidal Malik Hasan, a former Major in the United States Army who planned and carried out a shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, in which he killed 13 of his fellow soldiers and wounded dozens more. What would cause Hasan, not only an American citizen but an American soldier - an Army officer who had taken an oath to defend the Constitution - to bring two handguns to work and open fire on other soldiers? And finally, this paper will pay special attention to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a well-known Muslim scholar born in New Mexico who once voiced support for the US but later became increasingly violent and hostile to it, calling for and supporting violence against the US until a drone strike killed him in 2011 in Yemen. Why would this US citizen, who, in the aftermath of 9/11 was seen as a national authority on Islam and advocate for peace, spend the last years of his life calling for jihad against the US and celebrating terrorists who killed Americans (Shane, 2015)? This paper will look at these questions of motivations, and why Americans familiar with the benefits of the American way of life would reject it for jihad. The conclusion of this paper will address the possibility that other Muslim-Americans today struggle with the same questions of faith and nationality as those studied in the paper, and what the US government might do to prevent future cases of radicalization.

Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla

Both Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla are currently in jail after they were arrested at a Midwest airport for trying to join ISIS in 2015. The two college students had married in June 2015, about seven months after they started dating, and had spent time together looking into online ISIS materials and talking about joining ISIS. They had been in contact online with ISIS recruiters, asking questions about ISIS activities, beliefs, training, and what it would take to join. Muhammad wrote “I am not familiar with sharia…I am excited about coming…but I feel I won’t know what all I will be doing.”(Green, 2017). Jaelyn expressed some apprehension about travelling overseas but was excited to join ISIS and “raise little Dawlah cubs”. (“Cubs” is a term ISIS uses for young boys they train to fight as soldiers of the caliphate.)(Green, 2017).  Jaelyn wanted to serve as a medic, Muhammad expressed some desire to fight as a soldier. However, the two never left the country, but were arrested at the Columbus airport- the “ISIS recruiters” they had been communicating with online were actually undercover FBI agents.

Muhammad and Jaelyn both came from middle class families, are well educated, and, according to peers and family members, had promising future ahead of them. The spring before they were arrested, Muhammad graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in psychology and had been accepted to a master’s program at the same school. His family was well established in the community, and “Moe” had a reputation for volunteering in his free time(Green, 2017). His father was a leader at a nearby mosque, where Muhammad spent much of his childhood. Jaelyn excelled in high school, participating in cheerleading, choir, National Honor Society, and the school robotics team, as well as thriving in classes. Years later, she stands out in her teachers’ minds as exceptionally gifted. She attended a local church growing up but began looking at other religions in college.(Green, 2017) In both families, education was seen as very important.

This is not to say that Muhammad and Jaelyn led perfect lives. Both struggled with personal issues. Jaelyn is remembered by high school friends as seeming lonely and not having close friends, and Jaelyn herself has said her relations with family members were not ideal(Green, 2017). She argued with her mother and sister often, and her father was often out of the home for months when deployed with the U.S. Navy. She also lost a childhood friend her senior year of high school, struggled with suicidal thoughts, and her mother said in court she suspected Jaelyn was self-harming (cutting her arms)(Green, 2017). Muhammad has stated in an interview since his arrest that although he grew up in a Muslim home, he struggled with his faith. This led to a bit of a rift with his father, who was also going through marriage-related stress with Muhammad’s mother.

These personal details are not included here to excuse, nor to gossip. They are a factor in what led Muhammad and Jaelyn to withdraw and rely on each other more than others, and more importantly, what led them to look at ISIS in the first place. Both were dealing with loneliness and depression- struggles most people must deal with at that age- and in their search for comfort, support, etc., two young people who had limited exposure to Islam looked at ISIS. Again, personal struggles do not justify trying to join ISIS- millions of young people deal with depression and family dynamics without joining a jihadist group- but it may help illuminate why the two were looking for a sense of community and belonging in a group such as ISIS in the first place.

That said, why ISIS? What did the two read or see about ISIS that made them think it was worth joining, or would improve their lives in some way? How much did either of them know about ISIS? Personal issues aside, why such a dramatic break with the country they had grown up in? Muhammad said after the arrest that “the goal was never to take part in jihad or commit violence- but rather to help out as fellow Muslims in the newly forming Muslim state.”(Bronstein, 2016)Given his comments to the undercover FBI agents online about wanting to fight, this appears a bit revisionist. Or perhaps he really wanted to help, and only said he wanted to fight because he was trying to impress the “ISIS recruiter” online. Either way, Muhammad claims he wanted to help fellow Muslims. In the same interview, he says “What really, like, stuck out to me were well, what I thought from the videos were people helping rebuild towns- people helping the needy-what we consider humanitarian”. (Bronstein, 2016)

This is worth considering- many people in the West see ISIS as violent terrorists and executioners, but perhaps ISIS is showing a different face in some of their propaganda. ISIS ideology states that they are the “true” or “correct” followers of Islam, so it makes sense that they would show themselves helping fellow Muslims and the needy, to recruit young idealists who “want to help out as fellow Muslims”. Perhaps this is a case of mirror imaging- if an analyst sees ISIS as terrorists and criminals, and if they assume everyone in the US sees ISIS in this light, that analyst might not pay close attention to ISIS propaganda, and could overlook a video showing ISIS helping people, a video that could appeal to someone like Muhammad.

Be that as it may, it seems near-impossible for them to have not heard about the acts of violence ISIS committed. Jaelyn and Muhammad, young people familiar with online interactions and social media, were in no way living unconnected or “off the grid”. They were instead, court documents show, researching ISIS leaders and ideology.(Green, 2017) Jaelyn found and shared with Muhammad videos of extremists and ISIS allies, and they watched several ISIS videos together. Jaelyn found articles which argued it was the duty of Muslims to join ISIS, and downloaded Dabiq, an online magazine published by ISIS. Muhammad looked for ISIS information on traveling overseas, and both said they watched video of ISIS executions as well.(Green, 2017)There is simply no way the two did not know the truth about how violent ISIS was. Either they were unfazed by the violence or were somehow in a state of denial about it, but there is no way a person can watch ISIS executing civilians and not understand that ISIS is violent. Add to this Muhammad’s interest in soldiering, and Jaelyn’s expressed desire to have children to serve the caliphate, and the inescapable conclusion is that the two knew that ISIS was violent and brutal, and they still wanted to join.

So how much of their betrayal was a rejection of American values and culture, and how much was caused by pain, loneliness, and struggles in their personal lives? This question, the question that is asked every time there is a mass shooting or terrorist act in the US, is still being debated today. However, it seems to be a combination of both. Jaelyn and Muhammad were both dealing with struggles in their personal lives (as many young people do), and in a search for support, belonging, or community, they identified the caliphate as a place where they could belong. On the other hand, they could not have been completely blind to what ISIS stood for.

For future cases, this may be something for counter-radicalization experts and psychological experts to be aware of- as young people (the majority of Americans arrested for interactions with ISIS are under the age of 28[Green, 2017]) try to deal with feelings of loneliness, depression, and hurt in their personal lives, they may look online for comfort and support. As one expert writing for the Atlantic (Green, 2017) said:

“Young people in America have a rich tradition of feeling lost and trying to find themselves. Some have escaped to the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness, taken up heroin, or plunged into the seedy depths of Reddit. Jaelyn and Moe, however, managed to self-destruct in a way that’s both politically charged and morally horrifying.”

Former FBI Director James Comey echoed this analysis in 2015, describing ISIS online recruitment efforts as a “siren song” to young people looking for a place to belong: “their slick propaganda, through social media, that goes like this: ‘…come to the caliphate. You will live a life of glory; these are the apocalyptic end times. You will find a life of meaning here, fighting for our so-called caliphate.’”(Green, 2017)People struggling with loneliness often look for support online, and ISIS recruiters know this.

Nidal Hasan

The next American jihadist this paper will look at is Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 soldiers and wounded many more on November 5, 2009 when he opened fire on a group of soldiers at Fort Hood. Hasan, a sworn officer in the US Army and a trained psychiatrist, is also a practicing Muslim. As with the case of Dekhlalla and Young, Hasan reportedly struggled with some personal issues leading up to the attack. And as with Dekhlalla and Young, after the 2009 shooting, people wanted to know why he did it, and if Hasan had been pushed to violence by terrorist sympathies or personal mental health issues.

At the time of the attack, Hasan had been in the military for over a decade. Trained as a psychiatrist, after the Army had put him through medical school, he had a fellowship at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, after which he did a residency at Walter Reed Medical Center.He also regularly attended services at a nearby mosque during the residency. After his time at Walter Reed, he was transferred to Fort Hood. His colleagues described him as quiet and withdrawn, but “intelligent, compassionate, and willing to help”.(Shane, 2009)

However, Hasan’s quiet nature disguised a large amount of internal stress, according to former colleagues. While working at Walter Reed, Hasan didn’t connect with people very well, according to colleagues and patients.(Shane, 2009) Army personnel who worked with him at Walter Reed said he struggled to socialize and cooperate and was not good at accepting criticism or feedback. In some ways, medical experts at Walter Reed experiencing huge amounts of stress in not surprising- Hasan and others were trying to heal injured service members coming back from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because of that Hasan regularly saw soldiers with terrible injuries, as well as severe mental stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Later, Hasan’s work would have him specifically interacting with soldiers “who had been evacuated from Iraq or Afghanistan after suicide threats or attempts.”(Shane, 2009)This stress elevated to a new level when, after being transferred to Fort Hood, Hasan learned that he would be deployed to Afghanistan in the near future.  

In addition to the stress related to deployment and the injuries he had seen at Walter Reed, Hasan was struggling with balancing his faith as a Muslim and his duties as a soldier, the “conflict he believed some Muslims soldiers felt between their religion and their country’s wars in Muslim lands”.(Shane, 2009)These thoughts fermented during his time at Walter Reed, during which he gave a presentation about Muslim American soldiers in 2007:

 “In that presentation, Major Hasan argued that the Koran forbids Muslims to kill other Muslims, placing Muslim American troops in an impossible position. Such soldiers should be allowed to receive conscientious objector status, he concluded. If they are not, he warned, there might be ‘adverse events’… [later that year] Hasan gave another presentation…titled ‘Why The War on Terror is a War on Islam’”.(Shane, 2009)

Hasan also shared these beliefs at a nearby mosque on several occasions(Shane, 2009). Some colleagues found these presentations troubling, but others thought Hasan had a unique and valuable perspective on “understanding of the pressures facing Muslim troops”, given his religion and military service. Known only after his attack at Fort Hood, around the time of these presentations Hasan began looking into relevant Islamic teachings online, reading about various perspectives on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the moral justification for using force against civilians.

Most troubling, he emailed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the religious leader who called for violence against the US before his death in 2011 (more on Awlaki below). Investigators say that by the time Hasan was reaching out to Awlaki, he seemed to have answered his dilemma- by coming to the conclusion that being deployed to Afghanistan would violate his duties as a Muslim, and that it was God’s will he used force against American soldiers: “By December 2008, when he sent Mr. Awlaki his e-mail inquiries, Major Hasan appears to have been deeply engaged with applying religious values to violence.” (Shane, 2009)He even seemed to draw some equivalence between a suicide bomber and a soldier.

This period between his residency at Walter Reed and the emails to Awlaki appears to have been the critical time for Hasan’s crisis of conscience. His personality and the internal nature of his struggle caused Hasan to keep much of his religious quandary either to himself or on the internet, so not much is known about what he learned or read. Investigators found research about suicide bombers, and an article calling for jihad, on his personal computer(Kenber, 2013), but what other online material Hasan read is unknown. Whatever it was, it had a powerful (and negative) effect on Hasan and pushed him towards violence. Experts have said “the emerging picture of Major Hasan suggests that militant extremism ‘seemed to provide answers to a lot of the psychological problems already stirring around in him’.”(Shane, 2009)

In trying to answer his questions about faith and military service, Hasan found extremist materials that resonated with him, and convinced him to act a certain way. Like Muhammad and Jaelyn, internal struggles seem to have prompted an online search for answers, at which point they found extremist materials that convinced them to, in Muhammad and Jaelyn’s case, to leave home, and in Hasan’s case, to attack. It is not fair to say the online extremist teachings were the sole cause, but they played an undeniable role.

Like the case of the two students above, the question has been asked- why did Hasan betray his country and its values for the ideology of violent extremism?  Hasan answered this question himself years later, during his 2013 court martial trial. He openly admitted to carrying on the attack and said little to excuse his actions. Speaking at the trial, Hasan “said he had been on the wrong side of war against Islam and had switched over.”(Kenber, 2013)Looking back before his attack, this statement of “switching sides” is congruent with what is known about his religious and personal struggles. Recall the presentations Hasan gave during his time at Walter Reed- in June 2007 a PowerPoint arguing “that the Koran forbids Muslims to kill other Muslims”, and later that year “Why the War on Terror is a War on Islam”.Hasan was trying to determine if he could simultaneously serve as an obedient Muslim and an obedient soldier, and the conclusion he came to was negative. This is why he “switched over” and carried out his attack. This is also supported by the fact that Hasan went out of his way to spare civilians during the attack- before he started shooting, he told the only civilian in the room to leave, and in fact the only civilian to be killed in the attack was one who tried to tackle Hasan(Kenber, 2013). Hasan was not killing indiscriminately; he was targeting a military force he saw as the enemy.

Why his superiors did not notice Hasan’s behavior, or step in before he was willing to attack US soldiers, is a) a good question that needs to be answered, and b) a topic for another paper. What matters for this paper is the conclusion Hasan came to- that serving in the US military and being a Muslim man of faith are incompatible, and mutually exclusive. This could have implications for Muslim-Americans serving in the military today. There are, of course, many Muslims who serve in the US military with skill, dedication, and bravery, but there is no reason to believe there are not others who may be asking the same questions that Hasan was asking in 2007. If others are asking the same questions Hasan was pondering, they may look online for answers, and there is plenty of extremist material online that would try to push them to the same conclusion Hasan reached (Allendorf, 2015).

It must be stated explicitly here that this paper is not saying Muslims cannot or should not serve in the US military or should be treated as untrustworthy on the basis of religion, or anything of that sort. However, it is a very real possibility that other Muslim members of the U.S. Military are struggling to balance their faith and occupation, and there is a plethora of online terrorist and extremist material and propaganda targeting them, and pushing them to act as Hasan did, against the United States. This dangerous ideology must be countered, and the issue of service members struggling to balance faith and military service should be looked at by the military, to avoid future cases of radicalization. Unlike Muhammad and Jaelyn, Maj. Hasan did not do what he did out of some idealist wish to help anyone. He rejected the military and the nation it serves and committed what he saw as an act of war against it. A positive, counter-radicalizing ideology should be put forward, to counter the mistaken belief that to be a good Muslim demands physical violence against the United States. The United States is not at war with Islam, and that should be made clear.

Anwar al-Awlaki

The last individual this paper will analyze is Anwar al-Awlaki, a popular Islamic scholar who preached peace for many years before growing increasingly antagonistic towards the US. In the last years of his life, he called for violence against the United States and celebrated acts of terrorism, inspiring many terrorist attackers before a US drone strike killed him in 2011 in Yemen. Awlaki was born in New Mexico to two highly educated parents and lived in the US until he was seven years old, at which point his family moved to Yemen, where Awlaki lived until he returned to the US to attend college(CNN, 2013). Born in and heavily educated in the US, Awlaki was both a US citizen and very familiar with American culture, politics, society, and values.

Unlike Hasan, Awlaki is not considered a terrorist for committing a single act of violence. He was, rather, an influencer and teacher, spreading his beliefs about Islam to others via sermons, Youtube videos, CDs, online articles, and other mediums(Shane, 2015). In the early part of his career, he did not advocate extremism, but preached about less violent topics: marriage, Jesus Christ, overeating, tolerance, etc.In fact, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Awlaki made a national name for himself as a well-spoken “bridge” between the US and the Muslim world. The New York Times described him as “auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘We came here to build, not to destroy’ he declared from his pulpit”and called him a “Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.”(Goodstein, 2001)

Awlaki became very popular in the late 1990’s and immediately after 9/11, in large part due to his skills as a communicator. A mix of education, familiarity, and style enabled him to connect with Muslims both young and old- older listeners applauded his “respectful manner and his bilingual, bicultural charisma”, and younger listeners connected with his “learning combined with his lack of formality”(Shane, 2015). He appeared on national media channels several times and gathered a large online following. And that popularity, in tandem with the growth of internet communication, gave Awlaki a large, international audience.

Unfortunately, Awlaki’s message changed over time. After the US invaded Iraq, Awlaki’s messages became less peaceful and became more aggressive. He seemed (unsurprisingly) very sensitive to how Muslims were treated in the US. After federal agents raided several Islamic establishments in the Washington-Virginia area in 2002, Awlaki’s message shifted: “So this is not now a war on terrorism. We need to all be clear about this. This is a war against Muslims. It is a war against Muslims and Islam… it is happening right here in America.”(Shane, 2015)This was a dramatic shift for Awlaki, and it marked the beginning of his rhetoric slide toward militancy and extremism.

Awlaki soon took a job at a mosque in London, and later moved to Yemen, where he lived the rest of his life. From 2002 onward, his tone became increasingly anti-US and pro-violence. Some of his later videos, for example, focused on subjects such as “how the United States is at war with Islam”, “why you should never trust a non-Muslim”, “Call to Jihad”, and praise for terrorists like Umar Abulmutallab, who tried to blow up a commercial airliner(Shane, 2015). Especially troubling, in 2005, Alwaki praised Major Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood:

“Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people…Any decent Muslim cannot live understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a US soldier. The US is leading the war against terrorism, which in reality is a war against Islam… How can there be any dispute about what he has done? In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.” (Shane, 2015)

 In 2007, Awlaki officially joined Al Qaeda in Yemen, and began helping plot attacks against America(Holbrook, 2017). This was the action that placed him on President Obama’s kill list to be killed by drone strike.

What made Awlaki such a dangerous figure was his influence (Shane, 2016). He spoke to a wide audience, and when his message became militant and called for violence against the US, many of them listened. The NEFA (Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, a US think tank) said of Awlaki: “There is no other comparable pro-Al-Qaeda, American figure who has such tremendous access to audiences or who has such credibility.”(MacEoin, 2010).The list of terrorists inspired by Awlaki’s preaching is not short: Major Nidal Hasan; Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, who killed five US service member in Chattanooga, had multiple Awlaki videos on his laptop; two men who opened fire on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas referenced Awlaki on social media; a Colorado woman who tried to join ISIS owned several of Awlaki’s DVDs; the Tsarnaev brothers who planted a bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013,- all these and more were very familiar with Anwar al-Awlaki and his sermons advocating violence against America.( MacEoin, 2010)

Awlaki’s reason for rejecting the country of his birth, and calling for attacks against it, seem to be similar to those of Nidal Hasan. Awlaki, as stated above, came to the conclusion that the War on Terror was really a war on Islam, and one could not participate in that war and be a righteous Muslim. A brief overview of some of his most popular sermons and publications between late 2001 and 2005 reveals Awlaki’s thoughts on Muslims in the West, and provides a timeline documenting his gradual shift from peaceful co-existence to jihad.

In September 2001, days before 9/11, Awlaki gave a sermon titled “Tolerance: A Hallmark of Muslim Character”, in which he described a “global consciousness”, or ummah, of Muslims worldwide, stating that Muslims should be united, and should care about the lives of Muslims in other countries: “Iraq is being choked to death…what are we doing for them?...The Palestinian issue should be something that we are concerned about day and night. We should…support this uprising and let them know the American Muslims are with you.”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011) Awlaki argued that Muslims needed to remain united and committed to each other’s wellbeing. His proposed solution was “the preservation of Islamic identity”, an idea that “Muslims can live their faith fully and maintain a strong Islamic identity while becoming actively engaged citizens” wherever they live.(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011) This was not a call for violence or jihad, merely encouraging American Muslims to care for fellow believers overseas, a common belief in many religions. (The idea of identifying by your religion instead of self-identifying based on nationality is not a new idea, and is practiced by people of multiple faiths.)

Another strand of this ideology, however, was Awlaki’s belief that Muslims living in the West could not allow Islam to become weakened or diluted “with supposedly Western concepts such as nationalism, culture, and secularism.”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011).In another popular sermon series titled “The Life of the Prophet: The Makkan Period”, Awlaki spoke of Western culture:

 “being forced down the throats of everyone…we are not really dealing with a global culture that is benign or compassionate. This is a culture that gives you no choice…How many of our youth know the names of all of the Anbiya of Allah? How many of our youth know the names of the Sahaba? But ask the same person to name the soccer players on their favorite team …and they would go down the list. So there is a serious identity crisis that is going on...”

Muslims living in Western nations, Awlaki said, must resist “being ‘swept by the whirlpool of the materialistic trend that prevails in the West’”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011). This was a consistent theme in Awlaki’s preaching for many years- the belief that Western culture and Islam were inherently at odds with the other, and Western culture was seeking to dominate, and therefore dilute, Islam. Awlaki was not yet calling for jihad, merely advocating “the preservation of Islamic identity”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011). Awlaki had problems with Western culture in 2001 but was not declaring war.  

This became to change in March of 2002, when, as mentioned above, FBI officials raided several Muslim enterprises in the Northern Virginia area. It was at this point Awlaki told his followers “This is not a war on terror…This is a war against Muslims”.This marked an important shift in rhetoric- “Western culture can dilute our beliefs” had become “America is at war with our beliefs”. With this, Awlaki began encouraging Western Muslims not to cooperate with law enforcement or counter-terrorism officials: “Speaking shortly after the raids, Awlaki sought to instill in his audience a sense of isolation and siege, framing any police or government counter-terrorism action as part of the Western War on Islam”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011). Tying his call for Muslim unity with this message of siege, Awlaki began preaching a message of non-violent resistance, imploring Western Muslims to look out for each other, become more politically active, be skeptical of Western governments and not work with counter-terrorism efforts, but not to commit acts of violence. He even made reference to the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s to encourage political activism. (Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011)

This was the message he preached between 2002 and 2004, during which time he moved to the UK and began preaching at a large mosque in London. Popular sermons during this period focused on Muslim unity and solidarity, and the idea that Western culture was laying siege to Muslim communities. “You don’t hand over a Muslim to the enemies of Allah”, he said in December of 2003, signaling that Western governments were at war with Islam, but again falling short of actually calling for jihad.Other sermons reinforced this idea that non-believers, particularly decision makers in government, were the enemy: “…they want to deceive you. The important lesson here is never, ever trust the kuffar [non-believers]. Do not trust them.”(Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011)Any equivocation about who the enemy was, or ideas of cooperation with non-Muslim groups, was gone from Awlaki’s sermons, but he still stopped short of calling for violence.

In 2004 and 2005, Awlaki spent more time on the subject of violence, giving lectures based on a 14th century Islamic document known as “Book of Jihad”. While he was careful to clarify that this was only an academic endeavor, and that he was not advocating violence, he spent multiple lectures developing a definition of jihad, which he said had become confused in the post-9/11 world. He rejected the idea that jihad could be meant as an internal struggle, but insisted it was a call to action: “[jihad is] Striving to the limit in fighting in the sake of Allah directly or by money, or intellect, or by increasing the numbers” of believers (Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011). Jihad, Awlaki argued, meant to physically fight or struggle on the behalf of Islam and Allah.

It was with his 2005 sermon series “Constants on the Path to Jihad”, that Awlaki transitioned from non-violent political action to advocating for jihad. Building up “jihad as a pillar of Islam”, Awlaki declared that the Koran demanded Muslims fight: “Allah says ‘Fighting has been prescribed upon you and you dislike it, but it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you and you love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knows and you know not.” Awlaki further argued that jihad was as much a part of being a Muslim as praying or fasting: “They (jihad and fasting) are both in Surah al-Baqarah [a chapter in Koran]. Fighting is proscribed upon you and fasting is prescribing upon you; so how come we are treating them differently?” According to this logic, all Muslims are required by Allah to fight for Islam, and therefore, any action taken by non-Muslims to prevent jihad is preventing Muslims from carrying out what Awlaki insisted was their religious duty. (Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2011)

Here, in “Constants on the Path to Jihad”, Awlaki took the next step in the line of argument he had been developing and preaching for years and called for jihad against the West. “Western culture is a dangerous influence to Islam” became “Western culture is at war with Islam, band together and resist”; which developed into “Jihad is not an internal struggle but a physical fight and struggle”, and in 2005, “The Koran demands Muslims must fight”. With future lectures, Awlaki would distinguish between Muslims who disobeyed and those who were willing to fight for Allah; and would praise those who, like Nidal Hasan, attacked the West. In 2007, he joined Al Qaeda in Yemen, and helped plot terrorist attacks and encouraged his many online followers to fight against the West until his death in 2011. (Shane, 2015)

Tracing this developing ideology helps illuminate why Awlaki betrayed the United States and called for violent attacks against the American people. He had held since before 9/11 that Western culture was a threat to Islam. It is possible he never fully accepted American society and its values as his own, but instead saw them as a “diluting” influence to be avoided. Already skeptical of the West and its values, seeing counter-terrorism efforts, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, in post-9/11 America, could have confirmed to him that the culture he had always kept at arm’s length was his enemy. What is less clear is why he ascribed to the faction of Islamic ideology that sees jihad as required of each and every Muslim. This is not agreed-on theology, thousands of Muslims live peacefully in the West, only a small percentage take up arms against non-Muslim governments and peoples. So why did Awlaki ascribe to such extreme beliefs? That is uncertain. Perhaps the time he spent living in Yemen as a teenager exposed him to such beliefs, or maybe, as with the others in this paper, extreme ideology was not the only factor, but dovetailed with personal/emotional struggles as well.

What matters most for policy makers today is Awlaki’s legacy: killing him in 2011 has had the unfortunate effect of making Awlaki a martyr (McNeil, 2016). Many of the attacks Awlaki inspired took place after his death, and interviews with arrested terrorists often show that person was motivated to action by the killing of Awlaki by the US(Shane, 2015). And Awlaki’s publications, lectures, and sermons live on today in unregulated parts of the internet. The arguments of Awlaki, and others who agree with his brand of extremism, are still being spread today, and as Obama said in 2011 “In order for us to defeat terrorist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda, it’s going to also require us to discredit their ideology”(Shane, 2015).  As stated at the end of the section of Nidal Hasan, the ideology that caused Awlaki to do what he did is still being propagated today, and US policy makers must counter it with messaging of their own, to prevent others from following Awlaki’s path.


While there are some differences in each of these three cases, there are similarities as well. In all three of these case studies, extreme ideology was not the only factor- Muhammad and Jaelyn struggled with loneliness in their personal lives, Hasan and Awlaki struggled with a dichotomy between faith and their nation of origin. Hasan and Awlaki both reached two conclusions: that the US was at war with Islam, and that to be a good Muslim required going to war against the United States. Both halves of this mistaken ideology exist today, and both must be countered to prevent the next Hasan or Awlaki from betraying the US and declaring war on it. The US is not at war with Islam, but that is a lie that terrorist recruiters continue to use to swell their ranks. It is possible to be a good, righteous Muslim without killing people- millions of Muslims do it every day- but terrorist recruiters will tell impressionable people that to bring in new fighters to join their jihad.

One of the lessons of this paper is that there is no one way an individual can be radicalized or recruited. It could be propaganda playing on misguided idealism, like Dakhlalla spoke of, hours spent studying extremist ideology online like Hasan, or being separate from and not assimilating into society, like Awlaki chose. A common theme in this paper was American Muslims struggling to balance their religious identity and their national identity. This is not just a problem of the past- Muslims both civilian and military are surely asking the same questions today. These questions must be taken seriously by the US, and alternative ideologies presented, to counter the extremist ideology being broadcast by various terrorist groups today.

Demonstrating that Muslims can serve in the US military (perhaps by highlighting a few success stories of Muslims currently serving), or that Muslims can live full, rewarding lives in American society (perhaps by re-affirming American values like freedom of religion and rule of law, or by reducing anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from national leaders) will provide a non-violent, positive alternative to the jihadist ideology of terrorist organizations. An initiative to amplify the online voices and teachings of Islamic scholars and theologians who preach peace and reject extremism would be beneficial as well. Government agencies such as the FCC could also consider working more closely with social media platforms to identify jihadist materials and propaganda and develop a counter-narrative to combat extremist teachings. This way, when the next Hasan, Young, Dakhlalla, or Awlaki goes to the internet for answers, they find resources that steer them away from violence, not towards it.


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About the Author(s)

Sam Read is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Statecraft and National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC. His previous research has focused on Afghanistan, corruption, and terrorism; his last published paper studied the impact of corruption in Afghan politics and how that has hampered U.S. military and nation-building efforts. In addition to research, he has worked with the Washington DC police department, the Hudson Institute, and at the Pentagon. He is currently employed as a risk analyst in the DC area.