Flashback: Droned U.S. Citizen Once ‘Moderate Islam’s’ Media Darling

Who was Anwar Al Awlaki and why did the U.S. government kill him in a 2011 drone strike, despite his U.S. citizenship?

The latter question has been answered with the court-ordered release of a Justice Department memo justifying the action. Awlaki, held “operational and leadership roles” in Al Qaeda in Yemen and “continue[d] to plot attacks intended to kill Americans.”

The first question – who he was – is one many in the media won’t be too eager to revisit, because they got it spectacularly wrong for a long time.

Al Awlaki was a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric who once served as imam of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Northern Virginia, the same place that attracted many of the 9/11 hijackers and, later, Major Nadal Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter.

But before and certainly after 9/11 the media were desperate to find and hype moderate Muslim voices. Awlaki played along. A New York Times article from Oct. 19, 2001, listed Al Awlaki as one of the Muslim leaders who were “calling on their colleagues to tone down the incendiary anti-American messages that have long been a staple at some Muslim events.” The Baltimore Sun and NPR were similarly taken with the moderate who wanted to “solve the problems without violence.” Awlaki NPR reported, “sees himself as a Muslim leader who could help build bridges between Islam and the West.”

Unsurprisingly, The Washington Post was the most useful of Awlaki’s useful idiots. In Nov. 2001, just two months after the 9/11 attacks, the Post did a video profile of Al Awlaki and hosted him in an on-line Q & A session with readers. “[T]he greatest sin in Islam after associating other gods besides Allah is killing an innocent soul,” the bridge-builder told questioners.

Just a few years later, Al Awlaki was praising Nadal Hasan (with whom he had corresponded) as “heroic,” saying “may God richly reward him.” Another of Al Awlaki’s protégés tried to detonate his underwear in an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009.

But by then the Post had moved on. Al Awlaki’s old job as the Post’s in-house Muslim PR director was filled by Feisal Abdul Rauf – the Muslim cleric who caused a storm of controversy in 2010 with his plan to build a mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero in Manhattan. Feisal, a former associate of Al Awlaki, has written at least 20 “On Faith” columns for the Post’s website since 2008.

In its June 23 item on the Justice Department memo, the Post mentioned Hasan, the underwear bomber and Al Qaeda in Yemen but, strangely, didn’t seem to remember when Al Awlaki was its pet “moderate Muslim.” 

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture