*** He has sway because he sounds believable. That's the first hurdle to be crossed by Western strategists. Second, there is no meaningful counter narrative and Awlaki gets to be the only voice they hear. MS ***
He's the Pied Piper of terror.
Authorities say charismatic terror leader Anwar al-Awlaki's knack for mesmerizing young Westerners to wage jihad is at the heart of the botched plot hatched by two New Jersey men to kill U.S. soldiers.
"Awlaki's been moving up the terrorist food chain for several years now," said a U.S. official familiar with his classified dossier. "He's gone from propagandist to operational figure within AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], which has become more interested in external plotting over time, including planning attacks against U.S. interests at home and abroad."
Counterterror officials compare the Yemeni-American's magnetism to those of cult leaders. He's an expert at persuading ordinary men, like the accused New Jersey plotters arrested late Saturday, to kill for Allah - or die for Him.
Time and time again, from the Fort Hood, Tex., massacre to the underwear bomber to the Times Square plot, Awlaki's name ends up in the thick of it - giving him the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. citizen marked for death by his own government. Prosecutors say the two Jersey jihadists watched numerous video and audio recordings that promoted violent jihad, including lectures by Awlaki and videos featuring attacks by Al Shabaab and other terrorist groups.
The polished Las Cruces, N.M.-born Awlaki, 39, has slickly talked his way up the ladder from cleric and recruiter of English-speaking Westerners.
Awlaki's latest success with inspiring followers to wage anti-U.S. jihad was the two New Jersey men arrested Saturday at Kennedy Airport on their way to join Somalia's Al Qaeda-tied Al Shabaab after listening to his speeches.
Besides his rants, a major reason for Awlaki's influence is that, unlike core Al Qaeda leaders, he has been remarkably accessible: He has a Web site and answers his e-mail.
The U.S. tried to kill Awlaki and two other senior AQAP leaders in a Yemen air strike Dec. 24, the day before his "student" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner with a liquid explosive bomb tucked into his undies.
Awlaki had long been on the radar screen of U.S. counterterror officials - who allowed him to leave the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks despite having told the FBI he knew three of the hijackers from mosques he worked at in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., outside Washington.
An FBI report obtained by IntelWire shows agents quizzed him four times in the days after the 2001 attacks, when he was earning a Ph.D. at George Washington University and was the imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque. Fox News reported last month there are new suspicions he may have known what the 9/11 thugs were up to.
Last week, the Justice Department indicted Barry Bujol of Hempstead, Tex., and revealed the agency had been secretly reading Awlaki's e-mails since at least 2008. Awlaki sent Bujol a document titled "42 Ways of Supporting Jihad," prosecutors said.
It wasn't until Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan slaughtered 13 fellow soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood, Tex., last November that Awlaki took on rock-star status within the militant jihadi world.
Soon, he was deemed worthy of a bull's-eye. Counterterror officials learned Awlaki corresponded with and may have met Abdulmutallab. Accused Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad also had e-mail contact with him, sources say.