President Donald Trump has begun forging his own legacy in the ongoing wars on terror. On the same weekend that he signed his executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, U.S. Navy SEALs, alongside UAE special forces, were preparing to raid Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets in Yemen, the first U.S.-led ground action in the country since 2014. While over a dozen al-Qaeda fighters were reportedly killed, so too was a Navy SEAL, along with an unverified number of civilians. Looming in the background was an all-too-familiar apparition: that of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric and propagandist, killed by a U.S. drone strike on September, 30, 2011, while traveling through al-Jawf, Yemen.
As reports of the travel ban’s impact on U.S. residents emerged, excerpts from one of Awlaki’s final speeches from 2010 began reappearing in online forums frequented by his admirers. In the speech, Awlaki, whose notoriety has grown since his death, observed how forever war frustrates and corrupts the attitudes of those that wage it. In light of Trump’s travel ban—and not for the first time—Awlaki’s seemingly prophetic words about the inevitable course of the wars on terror seemed to ring true:
Don’t be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters. Today, with the war between Muslims and the West escalating, you cannot count on the message of solidarity you may get from a civic group or a political party, or the word of support you hear from a kind neighbor or a nice co-worker. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!
Soon after the raid, word broke that one of the civilians killed in the operation was eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s daughter. Her brother, Abdulrahman, was similarly killed via U.S. drone strike two weeks after his father. Photos of the bright-eyed girl soon appeared online, often accompanied by a quote from her grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, describing how she was shot in the neck and “suffered for two hours.” Trump’s pre-election suggestion that the families of terrorists were fair game notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that the raid deliberately targeted civilians or the Awlaki child. In the fog of war, civilian deaths do occur.
But when they have occurred during the war on terror, they often become part of the propaganda of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The death of Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, at the hands of his own government, provided him with a potent martyrdom story; Nawar and Abdulrahman are now part of that story. This is how good propaganda works: by fusing facts, lies, and coincidence, to create stories that shape how audiences perceive the world. Awlaki will continue to be drawn upon, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of both the West’s infidelity to its principles when dealing with its own Muslim citizens, and the destruction that results from a war on terror without end.
Awlaki’s charismatic appeal is rooted in his message and image. Despite lacking a formal sharia education, he is often presented as a 21st century “warrior-scholar,” arguably the most revered type of leader in the jihadist milieu due to their fusion of jurisprudential knowledge and frontline fighting. Like many charismatic historical figures, his admirers see in him an inspirational martyr. They also see a reflection of themselves: a child of the West, a self-described “preacher of Islam involved in non-violent activism,” until the “American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims” changed him. His is a personal narrative filled with truths, half-truths, and myths. Nonetheless, it resonates deeply.
For evidence of Awlaki’s enduring, near-mythic status, one need only consider how often his speeches and writings are found among the possessions or on the electronic devices of “lone wolfs” like Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, or “small cell” terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the Boston Marathon attacks. Perhaps even more telling is the regularity with which al-Qaeda and even its enemies like ISIS will draw upon Awlaki’s image and message to capture the attention of English-speaking, second-and-third-generation Muslim youth living in the West.
This was the audience Awlaki most prized. His narratives, peppered with colloquialisms and jokes, shaped the worldviews of Muslim extremists. He legitimized their struggles, deftly drawing historical parallels between their plight and that of the first Muslims, led by the Prophet Muhammad. As Awlaki would declare in a 2008 speech: “If you talk about some youth in the West, who are second or third generation Muslims… living in the Den of the Lion … they are the first line of defense in this war of ideas and they are subjected to the brunt of it. Nevertheless, they are holding on to the truth!” In many ways, this passage captured the dualities that animated Awlaki’s message: at once exacerbating his audiences’ perceptions of crisis, while spurring them to action. The message has proven durable.
In the aftermath of Trump’s first foray into the war on terror, it seems that both Awlaki’s message and image were boosted in the eyes of his admirers: another of his forewarnings ringing true from the grave, another Awlaki slaughtered by the West’s “war on Islam.” It is a narrative that promises to resonate well-beyond the borders of Yemen or al-Qaeda’s networks. This is how good propaganda works: by fusing facts, lies, and coincidence, to create stories that shape how audiences perceive the world.
The impact of the raid will certainly affect both the type and robustness of future operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate very much on the rise in Yemen (and elsewhere). Yet, attempts by military and political spokesmen to explain these events, expressed in the sterile language of “risks,” “collateral damage,” and the “laws of war,” will likely leave little room for considering how ghosts from the past like Awlaki may effect actions today, and how those actions may be perceived in the future.
There will be more raids in once-forgotten corners of the world, and their aftermath will be leveraged by actors for their own propaganda and political purposes. In the West, crude political rhetoric and counterterrorism initiatives that are seen to disproportionately target Muslim citizens will provide the master propagandists of al-Qaeda and ISIS with the material they need. Lingering as ever, will be the ghost of Awlaki whose words and image will continue to haunt for many years to come.
Craig Whiteside’s views in this article do not reflect those of the Naval War College.