This is the question that my former colleague, Jacob Amis, and I have analysed in our paper for the latest issue of Hudson’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology. In the piece, we attempt to provide an overview of the parallel journeys to jihad of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the so-called “underwear bomber”) and his al-Qaeda mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki.
The paper begins by going through Abdulmutallab’s writings on Islamic internet forums in the years before his eventual turn to violent extremism. In his earlier postings, we found that although many of his views and concerns were salafi in nature, Abdulmutallab had little interest in politics. It was only upon his arrival at London’s University College London that he became politically conscious. We concluded that:
In the main, Abdulmutallab’s early writings convey a religious and social outlook strongly analogous to more recent forms of apolitical Salafism, or what Olivier Roy has termed “neofundamentalism.” As distinct from political Islamism, one can detect no specific activist or militant zeal for the creation of an Islamic State. Rather, the emphasis is on a narrow and conservative view of Islam, centered on the Quran and the Sunna as practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims, with more interest in umma consciousness and the implementation of sharia than the statist political program of classic Islamist ideology. Above all, it is concerned with the self-religiosity rather than religion-and hence the fixation on personal faith (iman), dress, speech and ritual.
The next section covers nearly a decade of Awlaki’s talks and sermons, and attempts to map his gradual move from the ‘soft’ entryist Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the violence of al-Qaeda. Our findings suggest that his initial involvement with the international Muslim Brotherhood network, and his embrace of the Qaradawist Brotherhood ideology, played a central role in his gradual move to al-Qaeda:
Between 2001 and 2009, there was a clear progression in Awlaki’s public pronouncements. He began with extensive connections to the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, and espoused views almost identical to leading Brotherhood ideologues, both past and present. He recommended classic Ikhwani texts in his lectures and generally avoided any direct incitement to violence in what he regarded as non-Muslim countries. Although his views on “defensive jihad” in “Muslim lands” remained consistent throughout, his strategic vision for the spread of Islam in the West gradually changed. Whereas in 2002 he discussed the peaceful and polite delivery of the “dawa package,” by 2005 he began to suggest that immediate violence was the only true path.
It is difficult to assess exactly why Awlaki transformed from an Ikhwani into an al-Qaeda jihadist, and a multitude of factors were likely at work. A frequent reason given by some of his former allies and supporters for Awlaki’s motivation is the 2003 Iraq War, although he has never made this claim himself. Now his speeches often cite what he regards as the atrocities of the Iraq war, but even before the invasion he disparaged the UN sanctions on Iraq, lamenting the supposed indifference of the world’s Muslims to their coreligionists being “choked to death.” Indeed, he did not begin supporting al-Qaeda openly until some years after the invasion. Another oft-cited reason for his shift is his time in a Yemeni prison, but again, this is not a claim he has made for himself. His motivations are likely to have been diverse; pressure from takfiri Islamists, of the kind detailed above, may also have played a role.
One of the traits Awlaki shares with numerous al-Qaeda ideologues before him is that he began his career as a disciple of the Muslim Brotherhood and, like Qutb after Banna, took these teachings to a violent conclusion. The change in Awlaki was not one of core beliefs-even in his early days he supported militants who sought to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and other regions he defined as Islamic. He also supported the idea of a caliphate that would eventually encompass the entire world. The real change lay in his vision or method of how best to achieve this.
The paper concludes with an overview of the British Islamist milieu during Abdulmutallab’s time at UCL between 2005-2008. Covering activities of leading Islamist groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), The Cordoba Foundation and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), we question whether or not it was the political activism of Britain’s Islamists, combined with his pre-existing strict adherence to salafism, that contributed to Abdulmutallab’s recruitment to al-Qaeda. We look, for example, at the various campaigns by Islamists after the 7/7 bombings that promoted the idea of a Western ‘war on Islam’ during the time that Abdulmutallab was active on this scene through the UCL Islamic Society:
British Islamists utilized the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with post September 11 anti-terror legislation, to imply that Western governments were engaged in a “war on Islam and Muslims,” both in the West and in the Middle East. Western Muslims, according to the Islamists, were duty bound to stand up for their religion and fight back using non-violent methods. The above-mentioned “Stop Police Terror” lecture, given by Awlaki at the East London Mosque in 2003, was part of a broader campaign of the same name which ran until November 2006. Among the listed supporters of the campaign was Awlaki himself, as well as the Muslim Association of Britain, the East London Mosque and a collection of British university Islamic societies. The stated aims of the campaign were to encourage Muslims to take action against “anti-terrorist police terror” and to raise awareness about “the deteriorating situation in the UK and the scale of arrests, raids and abuse meted out [against Muslims] by Anti-Terrorist Police.” The campaign statement also included a clear warning: “Britain’s Muslims, as a community, will refuse to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities if this abuse continues.” In 2005, at the height of the campaign, then MAB director Anas al-Tikriti claimed that the West was engaged in an “ideological, idea-driven war against Islam.”
During this time, FOSIS ran its own campaign in conjunction with “Stop Police Terror.” Their statements on this issue were even more explicit:
“The persecution of Muslims in Britain began even before 9-11 with the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000. By the end of April 2005, over 750 Muslims had been arrested under the Terrorism Act. Just over 100 were charged with only three convicted of any terrorism related offence. In the same time, tens of thousands of Muslims have been stopped and searched; hundreds of homes have been raided, Islamic charities have been shut down, over a dozen Muslim men were interned without charge and are now under control orders, and the community has become demonized and ostracized by elements of the media and the government. Security services are making a concerted effort to recruit informers from the Muslim community particularly on campus.
“Whereas previously, it was Muslims themselves under attack, now the agenda [is] to attack Islam, its principles and values as well as its political system of shariah and khilafah are under attack. New laws making it an offence to associate with ‘wrongdoers’ together with the government’s policy of dividing the community into moderates and extremists aim to divide and weaken the Muslim community. The relative concept of ‘extremism’ is being used to condemn Muslims from very diverse political viewpoints.”
Although there was no call for violence, the notion of a Western “war on Islam” is widely identified as one of the primary recruitment tools of global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. Abdulmutallab was thus immersed in an activist environment that appears to have given meaning and direction to his preexisting religious austerity and personal discontent.
The overall conclusion of the piece is that, although every individual journey to violent jihad is unique, the Abdulmutuallab/Awlaki case study is a very useful addition to the growing body of work on ‘homegrown’ Islamist radicalisation. Both of these men were, in their own ways, heavily influenced by the Islamist ideology, and both were seemingly introduced to these ideas by the ‘non-violent’ Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be impossible to discover exactly what makes an individual become a suicide bomber or member of al-Qaeda – even the motivations of serial killers and other violent criminals are not properly understood – and rather than attempting to find this Holy Grail, it may be more productive to begin identifying what all terrorists have in common, and a good place to start looking is their ideology.