Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — a remarkable conversation today between Greg Johnsen, Will McCants, and Thos Hegghammer ]

One of the key questions in discussions of the droning of Anwar al-Awlaqi, which has recently resurfaced as the result of the posting of the “drone memo” [here at pp 67 and following], has to do with whether or not Awlaqi was AQAP’s foreign operations chief, and thus an “imminent” threat to US national security, or “just” their best English-language social media preacher / propagandist, and thus effectively a “threat-once-removed” so to speak.

Gregory Johnsen posted a piece titled New Al-Qaeda Propaganda Video Appears To Undermine Obama Administration’s Drone Memo on Buzzfeed today, continuing a conversation that he’s been involved with for a few years now:

A new video from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to undercut the Obama administration’s claim that Anwar al-Awlaki was the “head of external operations” for AQAP. The 39-minute video was posted to the internet on Saturday, just two days before the Second Circuit Court released a legal memo justifying Awlaki’s killing by a CIA drone in September 2011.

Despite its release date, the video doesn’t appear to be an attempt to pre-empt the Obama administration’s memo. In fact, the video has little to do with Anwar al-Awlaki. Instead it focuses on the life of Said al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who rose to become the deputy commander in AQAP before dying as a result of wounds suffered in a U.S. drone strike in late 2012.

The video says that it was Shihri — not Awlaki — who was “responsible for external operations against America.” For years, the Obama administration has argued the opposite, claiming that Awlaki was directing AQAP’s efforts against the U.S., including the failed underwear bomb on an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

On the day Awlaki was killed, Obama called him “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and said he “directed” the 2009 attack. The video appears to refute both claims, giving credit to Shihri, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee.


Let’s pick up the story there, and move to an extraordinary example of what Twitter can do, in the form of an exchange today between Johnsen himself, the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Will McCants, author of Founding Gods, Inventing Nations, lately of the CTC West Point and now at Brookings, and Thomas Hegghammer, aurthor of Jihad in Saudi Arabia and director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

We’re overhearing three of the brightest minds in counterterrorism, chatting at the next table…

GregorydJohnsen ?@gregorydjohnsen:
What if the intel was wrong? … my new piece on Awlaki and the drone memo

Will McCants ?@will_mccants:
@gregorydjohnsen Was Shihri a Dickens fan? … cc @Hegghammer

GregorydJohnsen ?@gregorydjohnsen:
@will_mccants @Hegghammer I would love to get both your take as well as Thomas’ on the new video and whether it changes anything

Thomas Hegghammer ?@Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire video is very interesting, but it implicates Shihri more than it exonerates Awlaqi

Thomas Hegghammer ?@Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire films doesn’t actually say Shihri was executive head of external operations … 1/2

Thomas Hegghammer ?@Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire it says (21’33’’) he supervised Christmas bombing “with his brothers in external op division”

Thomas Hegghammer ?@Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire Shihri may have been higher in food chain, but Awlaqi may still have been chief executive officer

Thomas Hegghammer ?@Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire and Rajib Karim case docs clearly show Awlaqi’s operational role

Thomas Hegghammer @Hegghammer:
@gregorydjohnsen @will_mccants @intelwire but Greg, your bigger point stands: We should be having this discussion in a court, not on Twitter


Here’s what I want to remind you of…

In what I can only call a “glancing tweet” towards the top of that exchange, Will McCants linked to a piece by Thomas Hegghammer dated November 24,  2010, The case for chasing al-Awlaki, which begins:

In a recent New York Times op-ed, renowned al Qaeda expert Gregory Johnsen argued that Anwar al-Awlaki is a peripheral figure in al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and that U.S. security services should worry less about Awlaki and more about AQAP’s top leaders, such as Nasir al-Wihayshi and Sa’idal-Shihri. Johnsen is right about the first part of his argument, but wrong about the second.

Hegghammer’s key para for my purposes reads:

Awlaki is AQAP’s Head of Foreign Operations. In the latest issue of the group’s English-language magazine Inspire, an article signed “Head of Foreign Operations” takes credit for the recent parcel bomb plot and outlines in great detail the planning and thinking behind it. The article is almost certainly written by Awlaki. We know this because the article references obscure figures from the history of Muslim Spain, a pet subject of Awlaki’s, and because it mentions Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a book he reviewed on his blog in 2008. Moreover, Awlaki is a personal friend of the editor of Inspire, Samir Khan, and has published in the magazine in the past.

Here’s the image from that issue of Inspire magazine:


Here’s Inspire’s commentary, from the article titled “The Objectives if Operation Hemorrhage” by their “Head of the Foreign Operations Team”:

This current battle fought by the West is not an isolated battle but is a continuation of a long history of aggression by the West against the Muslim world. In order to revive and bring back this history we listed the names of Reynald Krak and Diego Diaz as the recipients of the packages. We got the former name from Reynald de Chatillon, the lord of Krak des Chevaliers who was one of the worst and most treacherous of the Crusade’s leaders. He fell into captivity and Salahuddeen personally beheaded him. The name we used for the second package was derived from that of Don Diego Deza, the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition after the fall of Granada who along with the Spanish monarchy supervised the extermination and expulsion of the Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula employing the most horrific methods of torture and done in the name of God and the Church. Today we are facing a coalition of Crusaders and Zionists and we in al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula will never forget Palestine. How can we forget it when our motto is: “Here we start and in al-Aqsa we meet”? So we listed the address of the “Congregation Or Chadash”, a Gay and Lesbian synagogue on our one of our packages. The second package was sent to “Congregation B’nai Zion”. Both synagogues are in Chicago, Obama’s city.
We were very optimistic about the outcome of this operation. That is why we dropped into one of the boxes a novel titled, Great Expectations.

And here’s Awlaqi’s reading Great Expectations, as noted at an forum – the tasteful **** replacing the first four letters of Charles Dickens’ name is quite sweet:

Following Moby ****, I asked for more books without specifying which ones, so my parents brought me whatever was lying around in the house. This time it was King Lear by Shakespeare and Hard Times by Charles ****ens. Shakespeare was the worst thing I read during my entire stay in prison. I never liked him to start with. Probably the only reason he became so famous is because he was English and had the backing and promotion of the speakers of a global language. On the other hand, I read Hard Times thrice. So, I ordered more Charles ****ens and read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and his masterpiece: David Copperfield. I read this one twice.

What fascinated me with these novels were the amazing characters ****ens created and the similarity of some of them to some people today. That made them very interesting.

Awlaqi also notes, for the benefit of those of us not in solitary who might waste precious time in literary pursuits:

I want to stress that I do not encourage any serious Muslim brother or sister to waste time with novels. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was prevented from anything else, I wouldn’t have read them. And, I read them because apparently a person can begin forgetting his language, even if it is his mother tongue, if he does not use it for long time. There is even a joke that a man emigrated from an Arab country to America and did not learn English and ended up forgetting Arabic. Being in solitary confinement and not speaking English for a long time I needed refreshment.

So, there is some benefit in reading novels for those in the fields of public speaking and writing. And, once in while, there is a novel that is worth reading because of a pointed message that it tries to convey; such as the message in Animal Farm about communism, and the relevance of 1984 regarding how the West is treating Muslims today. But, for he who has the choice, there are better alternatives. There is so much out there to read. One should not spend the valuable time Allah has blessed them with on anything except that which will draw one closer to Allah.

For those interested in Awlaqi’s book reviews — without the asterisks — there’s an archive from his own site here.


FWIW I’d posted on the implications of that Awlaqi book review in light of the Inspire interview on Zenpundit on November 21st — the Zenpundit site is down at this time of writing, but the link is to – and I cross-posted the same piece, “What the Dickens? Symbolic details in Inspire issue 3″, at ChicagoBoyz, where it’s still accessible.

And again FWIW, connecting the “Inspire book cover” dot to the “Awlaqi book review” dot is a pure HipBone-Sembl game move — and an excellent example of what attentive reading coupled with HipBone-Sembl thinking can do for the analytic community.