How popular will Anwar al-Awlaki's latest video be?

A flurry of recent reports have described cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as a key leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. But the portrayals may be exaggerated.

SITE Intelligence Group/AP
Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message released on jihadi Internet forums on Nov. 8.

A new video message from the charismatic Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was released on jihadi Internet forums today, urging his followers to kill Americans without waiting for a fatwa or "special occasion."

The 23-minute video, delivered in Arabic, comes in the wake of a flurry of reports that have described Mr. Awlaki as a top leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen, facing intense US pressure to rein in AQAP after the recently foiled cargo plane bomb plot, put Awlaki on trial last week in absentia.

But Yemeni analysts here say the Americans have exaggerated Awlaki's importance in the organization – and thereby increased his ability to recruit English-speaking jihadis from the West.

“Westerners are drawn to Yemen because the American media enlarged the popularity of Awlaki," says Ayesh Awas of the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa, Yemen. "I don’t know if America intended to do that, but it definitely happened because of the focus they put on him.“

'Our leaders are traitors'

The video message released today was mainly a religious lecture in which Awlaki preaches against Americans, Arab leaders, and Iranian influence in the Arab world. It is believed to be the full version of a video from which some clips were aired in October – before the cargo bomb plot was uncovered. It contained no mention of Al Qaeda or the parcel bomb plot it claimed responsibility for last week, and it was not released by AQAP’s media wing – a possible sign that Awlaki's stature in the organization is limited.

"Do not consult anyone to kill Americans ... fighting the devil does not need a [religious ruling], does not need advice, does not need a special occasion, they are the party of the devil, fighting them is obligatory,” Awlaki said in the video.

He also echoed popular sentiment here, accusing President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government of bending too much to the Americans.

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“[Our] leaders are traitors, and followers of America. They lead the nation to the fall, and they care only about their personal interests and the interests of their masters the Americans. They drag us into American control,” Awlaki stated.

Video's release comes on heels of Awlaki trial

The video’s release came just two days after a Yemeni judge declared Awlaki guilty of incitement to kill foreigners and labeled him a wanted fugitive.

“Yesterday a regular visitor of bars and discotheques in America ... Awlaki today has become the catalyst for shedding the blood of foreigners and security forces,” said Ali Al Saneaa, the head of the prosecutor's office, in a statement released by the Yemeni government. “He was chosen by Al Qaeda to be the lead in many of their criminal operations in Yemen. Awlaki is a figure prone to evil devoid of any conscience, religion, or law.”

Yemeni authorities' trial of Awlaki last week was seen as a major conciliatory gesture to the United States.

Awlaki, whom the CIA added to its hit list earlier this year, reportedly inspired the Fort Hood shooter in e-mails prior to the attack and has been linked to the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab. Until recently, the Yemeni government did not appear serious about capturing Awlaki, who comes from an important tribe in Yemen.

While Awlaki has little or no battlefield experience, unlike other AQAP leaders who have fought in wars in Afghanistan, analysts say his importance is largely symbolic and comes from his ability to recruit English-speaking jihadis online because of his understanding of Western culture.

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