American Jihad was shown this Saturday on Showtime.
Any discussion of this greatly suppressed subject is welcome, but one fears too much emphasis will be placed on the internet legacy of a dead man.
“American Jihad” correctly connects Al Awlaki with prominent Americans who went jihad, such as the Tsarnev brothers, the San Bernardino shooters, Omar Mateen, who were all born into the culture of jihad, as well as Major Nidal Hasan, who actually met Awlaki.
However, it would be a mistake to blame a dead man, or even the Internet for radicalization. In almost all cases, the determining factor in radicalization is contact with a living person with a name and a face. In other words, radicalization is caused by Muslims radicalizing other Muslims.
“American Jihad Shows Us Why We Need to Talk About Homegrown Terrorism,” by Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, March 23, 2017:
It’s been five and a half years since Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a targeted drone strike in Yemen (making him, per The New York Times magazine, “the first American citizen to be hunted and killed without trial by his own government since the Civil War”), but in some ways the New Mexico–born Muslim cleric turned Al Qaeda recruiter and radical Islamist firebrand seems as present as ever.
It’s not just that the terrorist organizations with which Awlaki consorted are now able to claim him as a martyr (if in life he proved a master manipulator, an unusually effective force for recruiting Westerners to his cause, in death he’s an even more powerful symbol, a tool for justifying violent ideologies). And it’s not only that he continues to make news: Invariably when an American unleashes terror on U.S. soil in solidarity with ISIS, Awlaki’s name pops up; more recently, he made a posthumous appearance following the Trump administration’s controversial raid in Yemen. Among those reportedly killed (in addition to an American Navy SEAL) was Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter.
But more than anything, Awlaki’s continuing role in the story of America’s battle against terrorism has to do with the strange sort of immortality achieved by those who make their name on the Internet. Awlaki reached much of his audience through YouTube—in his early days he was regarded as a silver-tongued preacher of somewhat mainstream ideas; later, he proved to be a dangerously radical propagandist—and his rhetoric lives on through those still-circulating videos.
“The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!” Awlaki said in 2010, a prophecy that seems tailor-made for an America of Muslim bans and Trump-fueled Islamophobia. Taken out of context, it’s easy to nod along, to forget that these were words spoken by an extremist zealot who made it his job to convince impressionable young people that they should blow themselves up for his crusade—and who continues to do so from the grave.
If you Google around, you’ll find lots of magazine stories attesting to Awlaki’s ability to hock the Al Qaeda agenda to a Western audience. Now there’s a documentary, too, American Jihad, which premieres this weekend on Showtime. The film, as its director, Alison Ellwood, told me by phone, lays out evidence that Awlaki has influenced “every single case [of American homegrown jihadism] since 9/11, either indirectly or directly.” That’s a broad enough claim that it may well be true; either way, Ellwood convincingly makes the case that Awlaki’s message has had a devastating effect on many, many lives: those who heeded the call to jihad, their victims, and their family members.
She traces the thread through incidents familiar and less so: the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers, one of whom tweeted about Awlaki a few weeks before the attack; the attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando last summer by Omar Mateen, who allegedly watched Awlaki’s lectures, as did those responsible for the 2015 San Bernadino shooting; the 2009 Fort Hood attack by Major Nidal Hasan, who once attended a mosque where Awlaki was imam. We also hear from former jihadists who de-radicalized, and from the family members of those who fell under Awlaki’s sway: the mothers of Troy Kastigar and Zak Warsame, two Minnesotans who joined Al-Shabaab forces in Somalia; and the father and sister of Carlos Bledsoe, the Tennessee-born man behind a 2009 shooting at a Little Rock, Arkansas military recruiting office.
Those family members lend emotional heft to a film that can feel a bit perfunctory and breathless in its attempt at comprehensiveness. Their pain is palpable, as is their bewilderment over how and where and when to express it. Warsame’s mother, a Somali refugee who fled for the U.S. with her son when he was 10 months old, speaks of her fear of Zak joining a gang, of encouraging Zak to connect with his religion, only to find him turning to Awlaki’s propaganda. “I thought my son was on the right path. I never thought that he’s learning extremist Islam, or jihadist, or that kind of stuff,” she says. “He was normal Zak.” Kastigar’s mother, whose son died in Somalia in 2009, admits to the camera, her voice shaking: “The loss is terrible and shocking. I’m careful about talking about this loss. Because I can’t bear to have anyone be hateful toward my son. I just can’t bear it.”
It’s that tendency to clamp down, to avoid talking about this problem, that seems to most concern Ellwood. We spoke more about why she made American Jihad, why Trump’s “Muslim ban” offers little protection against terrorism, and why Americans urgently need to have an open dialogue about the issues addressed in her film.
Can you give me a little background about why you decided to make American Jihad?
The idea originally came when Peter Berg made Patriots Day. I think he was thinking about making a documentary about broader stories of homegrown terrorism, and where this comes from. He had partnered with 60 Minutes on Patriots Day, and they contacted Alex Gibney and Showtime. Alex called me and said, “Would you like to direct this?” We remembered when we were working on Casino Jack and the United States of Money, we’d worked with Susan Schmidt, a reporter with the Washington Post. At the time of that film, around 2008 or 2009, she was telling us about Anwar al-Awlaki, saying: “This is a fascinating story. You should consider making a film about it.”
So when they approached us and asked if we’d be interested in making a film about domestic terrorism, we instantly flashed back to this Awlaki story. I started digging in to it and realized that Awlaki had influenced every single one of these cases [of American homegrown jihadism] that has happened since 9/11, either indirectly or directly.
Why was Awlaki so effective in recruiting Americans to the Al Qaeda cause?
Well, he was a very charismatic person, for one. He spoke very clear, good English in the vernacular, so he was very accessible. And he was extraordinarily manipulative. He made you turn a corner: This is what you can do and what this will give you, but this is a commitment you now need to make. I think people who are vulnerable, confused, traumatized in some way in their life, who are looking to find some meaning, I think they’re very susceptible to someone like that.
We can’t build a wall high enough to keep the Internet out. We can’t ban travel to keep the Internet out. It’s here and these kids are being radicalized here. They’re not going off. We’re no longer importing terrorism. We’re making it here. It’s home grown.
Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in 2011. Has anyone risen in his absence to fill that vacuum?
He’s still filling that vacuum. He’s still the go-to guy. The scariest thing is if someone does emerge. There is actually an American in Syria now who potentially could fit that bill, but thus far hasn’t done so.
When you were making the film, were you explicitly thinking of it as a rejoinder to Trump’s ideas of a Muslim ban: to the misguided notion that banning wide swaths of people from entire countries is a way to rid our country of terrorism?
It was already part of the campaign, the threat to ban Muslims. We already knew that we would include it, but we weren’t actually thinking he would be president when we were making the film. We were filming in Memphis, actually, with the Bledsoe family, when the election happened, and we were all quite stunned. We were going to include [Trump’s campaign ideas] as foolish rhetoric, the kind of rhetoric that does exactly what [former FBI agent] Ali Soufan says: When we feed into their narrative, we do what they want. It feeds their ability to say the West is at war with Islam. We continue to seed this horrible narrative.
Thankfully, the vast majority of Muslims around the world certainly don’t subscribe to this at all. It’s not a huge number of people in this country. It’s a very small, manageable number.
One of the things I hope to happen with this film is that we start a real dialogue about this. I think if there’s an opportunity for people to discuss this in an open way, it takes some of the glamour away from it. That’s what I think a lot of these kids are drawn to: They’re told it’s glamorous. They’re told they’re going to go over there and participate in a caliphate, be part of this brotherhood. They get over there and find it’s completely not the case. It’s not so many people going over there now, it’s people wanting to act something out here, on behalf of the caliphate, claiming allegiance to the caliphate. They’re so misguided.
The Countering Violent Extremism program that Obama put into place is underfunded. There are three pilot cities: Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis. And there’s nothing really going on with it. That’s the program that Trump wants to rename Countering Islamic Extremism, which again feeds into the narrative. It’s circular.
As you assert in the film, much more of the terrorism in this country is by right-wing extremists than radical Muslims. In a moment of extreme Islamophobia, were you hesitant to focus on this fringe element that feeds into people’s negative ideas about this religion?
No, because what we’re trying to do is show that it’s actually much smaller than people are saying. There have been twice as many right-wing attacks in this country since 9/11. Prior to 9/11, there’s an FBI report that studied from 1980 until 2004, I think. Out of 319 so-called domestic terror attacks, nine of them were even remotely Islamic-based. But of course, the big one was 9/11. Everything is framed with that prism.
So what we’re trying to do is show that it’s actually a manageable problem, especially in this country, as opposed to Europe. Our Muslim communities are much less marginalized, much less ghettoized, than in Europe. They’re much more integrated. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that some young people, especially young males, have with trying to navigate the two worlds: this very free Western world, compared to the much more strict confines of the religion.
I think this is a very fringe element involved in this. But part of the goal of the film is to look at how the attacks that happened in this country since 9/11, all of the terrorist attacks that have caused damage or death, they’ve all been by Americans: either born or naturalized American citizens. And that’s new. We are no longer importing terrorism. It’s happening here and it’s happening through self-radicalization online. And why not have a discussion about that?
It struck me watching that you have a lot of empathy for the kids who get radicalized and make very stupid decisions at a very young age. Was that Awlaki’s story at any point? Do you have that empathy for him?
You know, that’s a really good question, and I think it’s ultimately an impossible question to answer. People will argue this to the end. Some people say he was always radical. Some say he was radicalized as late as being in prison in Yemen, which I think is ridiculous: I think it happened way before that. I would like to think there was that young guy in there once, and there may well have been. Certainly, he used to consider himself a preacher, someone who wanted to be the bridge between the Muslim and Western cultures, to have a dialogue. From what he said publicly, I think you could make that argument. On the other hand, he always had these dark things going on. He was duplicitous. He was presenting himself as a pious person, and asking people to lead pious lives. And yet, he was running off with prostitutes. Repeatedly. And he was calling upon youth to sacrifice their lives for his cause. I think he’s truly a narcissist.
What do you hope people will take away from this?
It goes back to the fact that, at least in this country, the numbers drawn to this are relatively small, significantly much smaller than Europe and other areas that have really struggled with this [problem]. We do have an opportunity.
When I show this film to friends of mine, many of whom have children, they walk away and say, “Oh, my god!” What do you do if you walk into your kid’s bedroom and you see Anwar al-Alwaki there? I hope we can start a dialogue about what to do.