West panics at American-born voice of jihad

But the cleric accused of radicalising Western Muslims is just a sideshow
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Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant Islamic cleric in hiding in Yemen, was being denounced in the US and Britain last week as an arch-conspirator against the West, leading to hundreds of videos of his speeches and interviews being hurriedly removed from YouTube.

Awlaki, an eloquent preacher, is alleged to have radicalised Roshonara Choudhry, the theology student who stabbed Stephen Timms MP for voting for the Iraq war. Awlaki was also in contact with militant Muslims who later attacked American targets, such as the Nigerian student with explosives sewn into his underpants and the US officer who shot dead 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

On the videos of Awlaki still available on YouTube, often excerpts from his speeches broadcast on US TV, his message remains chillingly clear. In a soft, measured voice he describes how he was born in America, lived there for 21 years and became an Islamic preacher, advocating non-violence until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This turned him into a supporter of holy war against America: "I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against the United States is binding for Muslims."

Awlaki has been denounced as "murderous thug" and as a leader of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, but the reason he has significant influence is that he is almost the only jihadi leader who can explain the ideology of holy war in rational and convincing words. Speeches by Osama bin Laden are at best cryptic, and those by al-Qa'ida leaders in Iraq and Pakistan are often sectarian rants.

In contrast Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and is highly educated, seldom raises his voice, and his method of speaking is similar to that of a television preacher. He speaks humbly and directly to his audience, citing recent political events and incidents from day-to-day life to illuminate his theme. In one video, illustrated by photographs of Muslims at war, he seeks to raise the morale of Muslims by describing how dark the future for Islam appeared when he was a young man. Afghanistan and South Yemen were dominated by communists, and Iraq and the Palestinian movement by nationalists. His point is that all these enemies of Islam have been unexpectedly swept away.

Most alarming for the US and British governments, Awlaki's words are directed primarily at English-speaking Muslims. He asks how American Muslims can give their loyalty to a country that is at war with Islam. Also alarming for potential targets of jihadists is that those moved to militant action by Awlaki may have had no previous contact with militant movements, so any attack comes as a surprise. Choudhry, who was jailed for life last week after stabbing Mr Timms, was the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants to Britain. She had held moderate opinions until she started browsing Islamic websites.

Awlaki is scarcely typical of the mainstream of al-Qa'ida, whose strongholds are in the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan and in Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. In sharp contrast to his sophisticated justification for holy war against the US and its allies, al-Qa'ida fighters in Iraq have largely focused on attacking the Shia majority whom they see as heretics. The Pakistan Taliban, heavily influenced by al-Qa'ida, shoot and bomb those not subscribing to their brand of Sunni Islam.

Saudi security sources say that foreign volunteers from the Muslim world, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who imagine they are travelling to Iraq to fight US troops, end up as suicide bombers targeting Shia marketplaces and mosques. More than 100 people died in co-ordinated bomb attacks on Shia areas of Baghdad this week.

Al-Qa'ida has survived the onslaught of the US and its allies since 2003 in large part because it exists more as an ideology and set of attitudes than as an organised movement that can be disrupted or destroyed. The US policy of systematically eliminating its leaders has likewise had limited impact because the strongest elements in al-Qa'ida are local franchisees who do not give priority to holy war against the US. If they did so, attacks would be far more devastating because in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan there are many jihadi cadres skilled and experienced in making bombs and getting them to their targets.

The US government and media are now demonising Awlaki, and probably exaggerating his influence, as the inspiration for attacks by focusing on Yemen as the new bastion of al-Qa'ida. But, as in Iraq, al-Qa'ida has strength mainly because it associates itself with groups already in opposition to the central government. In Yemen there is increasing dissent in the south, formerly the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, which united with the Yemen Arab Republic in the north in 1990. The government in the capital, Sanaa, has every incentive to persuade the US to label its many domestic enemies as al-Qa'ida so it can obtain financial aid and arms, along with military and political support.