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Al-Awlaki, the Translator of Jihad: How Influential Is Yemen's Mystery Man?

By Yassin Musharbash, Volkhard Windfuhr and

Yemen is not only home to a deadly al-Qaida group, but also to influential Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who had contacts with two of the 9/11 attackers and the Fort Hood killer. But can the US-born imam be persuaded to distance himself from al-Qaida?

The place where everything began and, if the Yemeni government has its way, where everything will also end is near the city's new mosque on Street Number 60 in the Hadda neighborhood of San'a, the capital of Yemen. The city's high-security prison, with its clay brown-colored walls and white trim, looks like a modern, albeit heavily guarded gingerbread house.

Anyone who approaches the prison faces the suspicious gaze of soldiers, who record the license-plate numbers of any vehicle they see more than once. The country's security forces have been nervous since Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who was trained in Yemen, tried to blow up a US airliner as it approached Detroit.

On Feb. 3, 2006, 23 members of al-Qaida escaped from this building, probably with the help of guards. The outbreak marked the birth of the second generation of al-Qaida in Yemen. It also led to a resurgence of the Arabian Peninsula's role as a training ground for militant Islamists. Until then, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida appeared to have been defeated. A US drone killed its last leader in 2002, and his successor was arrested in 2003.

Photo Gallery

8  Photos
Photo Gallery: Yemen's Mystery Man

Since the 2006 prison break, though, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's militants in Yemen have attacked embassies, bombed oil production facilities and murdered tourists. They also trained and dispatched the 23-year-old Nigerian with explosives in his underwear, aiming to prove, with a spectacular attack, that no one in the West was safe from them.

San'a Is Awash With Rumors

The ensuing power struggle that has erupted in Yemen pits the terrorists against the Yemeni state. The terrorists have already boasted of further plans to launch attacks, while the state -- officially, at least -- intends to eliminate the terrorists and, together with American security forces, already launched two air strikes against presumed al-Qaida camps last month.

San'a is now awash with rumors. Last Thursday, for instance, some said that a 16-year-old al-Qaida recruit with explosives strapped to his body was on the loose in the port city of Aden. According to another rumor, security forces are missing several trucks filled with explosives and weapons. And, finally, it is said that an al-Qaida leader who was allegedly killed by security forces recently may not be dead, after all.

After ignoring it for years, the world is suddenly turning a worried eye to this unstable country on the Gulf of Aden, arid and lacking natural resources, poorly governed, overpopulated and plagued by insurgents in the north and the south.

And the problems in neighboring countries can be added to the mix. In Somalia, the Islamist Al-Shahaab militias that control large swathes of the country are calling for the imposition of Sharia law and are seeking an alliance with the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). To Yemen's north lies the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world's most important oil producer, home of al-Qaida's most generous financial backers and, at the same time, one of the terrorist organization's targets.

"The instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week. President Barack Obama agreed and put a stop to the planned release of 40 Yemenis being held in Guantanamo. The detainees, which the US government had already classified as not being a threat, had been scheduled to return to Yemen soon.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed holding an international conference on Yemen, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon supports the idea. The world has paid no attention to Yemen for decades, but now all of that has changed.

The Yemenis, for their part, claim that they can make do without international assistance. The security forces are "able to confront challenges and eradicate all terrorist groups and refer those outlaw elements to face justice," Deputy Prime Minister Rashid al-Alimi said late last week. But hardly anyone believes that the terrorists will find themselves back in the main prison in San'a any time soon.

'The Smart, Influential Face of Al-Qaida'

The jihadists have already demonstrated their ability to stage attacks. And they have the support of a man who could transform the local branch of al-Qaida into a veritable dangerous enemy of the West: Anwar al-Awlaki, the son of Yemeni parents, born April 21, 1971 in the US state of New Mexico. The conservative US television network Fox News has already declared al-Awlaki to be a top threat. According to Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based independent terrorism consultant, Awlaki is "the smart, intellectual face of al-Qaida, and he is now a central figure in the movement."

Awlaki spent the first six years of his life in the United States, where he experienced a very American childhood complete "with hamburgers and Christmas trees," says a close relative. His parents returned to Yemen in 1977. But the young Muslim eventually went back to the United States, where he attended George Washington University in Washington, DC. He became a student imam at 23, which entitled him to free tuition.

Soon afterwards, he became an imam at the Ribat Mosque in San Diego, California. It was during this period, sometime in 2000, that he met Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks a year later. According to the official 9/11 investigation report, the two men had accepted Awlaki as a religious role model and maintained a close relationship with the imam.

Although Awlaki is not particularly well versed in theology, he is intelligent, speaks fluent English and is familiar with the culture of the "infidels." He knows how his students can carry out militant Islam in the Western world, and he is the perfect translator.

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