Anwar Awlaki lives—in social media. Before he was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack in September 2011, the U.S.-born jihadist pulled off a neat trick. He established a global media brand that has survived his death and remains politically relevant from Yemen to Paris to Washington.
A detailed dispatch from The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill traces how the social media brand managers at AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula, a network built by Awlaki) disseminated their news/propaganda/product in the wake of Charlie Hebdo massacre. They skillfully took credit for the Kouachi brothers' murder spree and linked their actions to the legacy of Awlaki, an imam and writer whose post-9/11 advocacy of jihad struck fear in the hearts of Western intelligence agencies and police departments.
Did AQAP conspire with the Paris brothers who killed two cops and ten media workers? The TV networks are starting to get illegal leaks from classified intelligence files, which may or may not be relevant. (Rest assured, these insider leakers and journos won't be prosecuted like James Risen.) The talking heads are chiming in. While the details are sorted out, it is safe to say that Cherif and Said Koucahi were inspired by Awlaki.
Scahill is at pains to note there's no definitive proof that Awlaki committed any one of the particular crimes with which he is accused of. But, as quoted by Scahill, Awlaki's videos and statements make clear his intent to foster attack on Western civilians—a civilian airliner here, an editorial office there.
Like any good operator in the world of covert action, Awlaki knew how to preserve plausible deniability while retaining operational flexibility, even unto death. He would be proud of the Kouachi brothers. Like AQAP spokesmen today, he would call them "heroes." His extra-judicial assassination does not exculpate him from war crimes he was proud to author.
Today's Islamist assassins want to claim Awlaki's mantle. And with good Twitter skills they have succeeded. I'm afraid their next target will be Washington D.C., my home town which abounds in soft targets that embody values offensive to the jihadists.
Also published on Medium.