He may be playing hide-and-seek from drone missiles in the caves of Yemen, but Al Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki is still attempting to poison the minds of young Muslim Americans through the use of YouTube and other social media.
The extent of Al-Awlaki's reach on the internet is outlined in a new report released by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) on Aug. 28. The report describes the millions of views garnered by Al-Awlaki's YouTube video clips and the online networking of his rabid fan base.
A former imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia, the American-born Al-Awlaki has increasingly been using social media as a recruiting method for would-be jihadists, leading terrorist watchers to dub him the "[Osama] bin Laden of the internet" and the "sheikh of YouTube." Al-Awlaki has been tied to the Sept. 11 hijackers, the Christmas Day bomber and the Fort Hood shooter. This past spring, President Obama ordered that the cleric be killed on sight, but the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Aug. 30 to prevent the military from targeting the U.S. citizen without a trial.
According to MEMRI, after Al-Awlaki's personal website was shuttered in 2009, YouTube became the "largest clearinghouse of his online videos."
"A quick tabulation of viewings of Al-Awlaki's 2,500-plus clips - comprising lectures, sermons, and compilation videos supporting his jihadist philosophy - now indicates well over three million views, and counting," MEMRI reported. "These clips include Al-Awlaki calling Muslims to jihad, expressions of support for martyrdom attacks, and encouragement to kill American soldiers."
Al-Awlaki has even begun posting his recruitment videos directly to YouTube, as opposed to the radical Islamist websites that normally host those types of clips. A search for "Al Awlaki" on YouTube turns up 4,600 results, These videos are publicly accessible, and can easily be viewed by children.
In one extreme case, a young American Muslim follower of Al-Awlaki created a "Jihadi Fan Club" page on YouTube, which MEMRI called "a clear example of a young American convert radicalized by YouTube."
"Anwar Al-Awlaki is NOT a terrorist. He simply wants America to change its unjust foreign policy," wrote Jihadi Fan Club on his YouTube page. "He does NOT call for fighting out of hatred for America, he call for fighting in the name of self defense. Anwar Al-Awlaki tells the sincere Muslims to fight against the U.S. troops and all the oppressors of the Muslims."
Underneath one video in support of the Ground Zero mosque, Jihadi Fan Club posted a shout-out to Al-Awlaki and Abu Monsour Al-Amriki - an American-born member of terror group Al-Shabab who posts his own rap videos endorsing jihad on YouTube - thanking the terrorists for their "inspiration."
In another post, Jihad Fan Club argued that the Americans murdered on Sept. 11 were not innocent civilians, and that they deserved the attack because they supported the U.S. economic and foreign policies.
"[P]eople want to say, 'Well, the people who did 9/11, they attacked innocent people.' Well not necessarily; you pretend like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was a daycare center or a maternity ward. No. The World Trade Center was the epicenter of American economy that funds so much death and destruction in the Muslim world," wrote Jihad Fan Club under a video expressing support for the Sept. 11 attacks. "If the people who did 9/11 wanted to kill innocent people, they would have bombed a school, they would have bombed a church, they would have bombed a daycare center, they would have bombed a grocery store."
Underneath a video of a CNN news program, Jihad Fan Club wrote that "Muslim lap dogs" are trying to trick other Muslims into condemning terrorism and being kind to non-Muslims.
"Killing the innocent is WORNG [sic], but CNN has an EVIL agenda which is to trick you into thinking that terrorism is caused by misguided Muslims instead of U.S. foreign policy," wrote Jihad Fan Club. "They also want you to spend your time condemning terrorist attacks instead of using your power to fight against the American government, its puppet regimes and its allies which is the cause of all the violence in the Muslim world and the terror attacks in the US & Canada. Oh Muslims please do not be fooled by these evil disbelievers and their Muslim lap dogs. A real Muslim is always harsh towards the non Muslims and lenient towards the Muslims."
Jihad Fan Club's page also features videos by the American-born Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, and praise for terror leader Osama bin Laden.
Al-Awlaki's use of the internet as a recruiting tool is noteworthy, especially because of the success the cleric has had at recruiting and inspiring American-grown terrorists in the past.
MEMRI lists more than a dozen terrorist suspects that were radicalized through Al-Awlaki's online presence, including Paul and Nadia Rockwood (an Alaskan couple who made a "hit-list" of U.S. officials who "desecrated Islam"), Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and Sharif Mobley (a 24-year old American who is charged with killing a Yemeni soldier).
Al-Awlaki was also a spiritual adviser to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But MEMRI noted that the jihadist infiltration of YouTube is unlikely to end soon.
"[A]s Western governments increasingly take down and interfere with traditional terrorist websites, Al-Qaeda and other jihadists have grown more dependent upon on YouTube and other social media outlets, including Facebook and Twitter. To date, these outlets seem unprepared to effectively address this problem," the group reported.
According to YouTube's "Community Guidelines," hate speech is not permitted on the website.
"We encourage free speech and defend everyone's right to express unpopular points of view. But we don't permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity)," reads the Community Guidelines.
A spokeswoman for YouTube told the Media Research Center that "Because it is difficult to verify the identity of users who post videos...an individual who claims to be a member of a terrorist organization (a claim we may not be able to verify) but who posts videos and comments that comply with the rules, may not be suspended from the site."
However, she said that users who "encourage others to commit specific, serious acts of violence, with or without claiming membership in a terrorist group, would be in violation of our policies."
One of the reasons why YouTube has difficult time addressing the problem of terrorist videos on the site may be because the enormous number of videos uploaded each day makes it nearly impossible to review and approve each one individually.
"Every minute, 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, totaling hundreds of thousands of videos every day. To be able to offer YouTube at this scale, we cannot review content before it goes live," said the spokeswoman.
This isn't the first time that YouTube has been cited for having controversial content on its site. A Media Research Center special report found that the website features thousands of sexually explicit videos, including soft-core porn, and is often used by porn producers to drive traffic to their X-rated websites.