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Blaming US-Born Cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki for Inspiring Boston Bombing

Creative Commons-licensed photo on Wikipedia by Magharebia of Anwar al-Awlaki

There is no concrete evidence that the brothers, who are suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon, were inspired by US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Yet, CNN has posted a report with the headline, “From the grave, the cleric inspiring a new generation of terrorists,” that promotes this new detail as if it is certainly true.

Al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, along with another US citizen, Samir Khan. No charges or indictment had been issued against him (or Khan for that matter).

On Tuesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that Dhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, had watched videos on the Internet that may have inspired their decision to engage in violence:

Investigators say he claims they had no contact with any foreign terrorist organization and they were self-radicalized on the Internet. The preachings of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed several years ago in a drone strike, were — quote — “likely” — unquote — to have been among the videos the Tsarnaev brothers watched in this process, according to this official, likely.”

Tapper also articulated it this way during “Starting Point” when asked if they were radicalized online by watching videos:

That’s as of now, that’s what Dzhokhar is saying. And we should say we’ve seen this before, this is one of the reason why the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki put up videos online. He’s now — he’s now been killed by a drone strike. But that’s why he did it, to radicalize individuals in different parts of the world.

And apparently some videos like that, we don’t know if it’s al-Awlaki or not, some videos like that did, in fact, radicalize the Tsarnaev brothers, especially it seems, Tamerlan. [emphasis added]

It is possible the “likely” is being used because the investigators have not been able to confirm what Tsarnaev told them during his interogation—that videos he viewed were of al-Awlaki. But, then, there are multiple tidbits from his interrogation that have been disclosed by agents or investigators connected to the investigation. Those tidbits have been more substantiated than this tidbit that supposedly indicates the brothers were inspired by al-Awlaki.

At the bottom of the article from Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, it reads, “CNN has established that the Dagestan wing of the Caucasus Emirate, a jihadist group fighting to create an Islamic state in the region, posted a Russian language translation of a 2012 issue on their website, along with videos of al-Awlaki.” It is a nice bit of context, but this fact is far from proof the Tsarnaev brothers were watching videos of al-Awlaki.

Media have been widely reporting that the Tsarnaev brothers read Inspire magazine, the magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They have noted that al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, a US citizen who was killed in the same drone strike that killed Al-Awlaki, worked on the magazine. One issue even contained instructions, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” They contained instructions for making pressure cooker bombs and are believed to have helped the Tsarnaev brothers figure out how to develop and arm the explosives used in the bombing.

Certainly, it is possible that videos of al-Awlaki were being watched by the Tsarnaev brothers. So, let’s accept that it is true. They were inspired by al-Awlaki. Now, the Boston bombing becomes another opportunity for US government officials and terrorism analysts to publicly affirm that killing al-Awlaki was just and right.

For the most part, news media will reprint the government’s official story on al-Awlaki, as CNN did with their report. The stories will omit key information, like how he was a prominent imam in the United States after the September 11th attacks, who was meeting with government officials at the White House. He was profiled by the Washington Post and would go on NPR and PBS. Commentators will neglect to mention all this, make it seem like he was always a jihadist and gloss over experiences that transformed him into a radical (either because they do not know, do not care or do not find this to be significant).

It certainly matters if the Tsarnaev brothers were inspired by Al-Awlaki’s preaching. Details can help Americans understand what led up to the decision to carry out the attack. It also ironically shows that executing people, who espouse dangerous or violent views, may not be a solution to ending that person’s power to inspire acts of terrorism. Their work will still live on the Internet and, if they are perceived as a martyr, their work will become an even greater force to be reckoned with.

Ahead of the deluge of news stories that will be rife with government propaganda on who al-Awlaki was as a preacher, one point needs to be made: Any inspiration al-Awlaki provided to the suspected Boston bombers does not make President Barack Obama’s decision to kill him with a drone any more justifiable.

It does not make the dozens of times that the Obama administration tried to kill him any less reprehensible. No matter how many terror suspects are found to have viewed videos of al-Awlaki’s preaching, it will not change the fact that he was assassinated and deprived of due process when the Obama administration should have had the Yemen government arrest him if they believed he was actively engaging in terrorist operations.

As the ACLU has argued, his killing “violated the right to due process under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the prohibition on unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment.” It also violated “the ban on extrajudicial death warrants imposed by the Constitution’s Bill of Attainder Clause,” as well as “international law, which is incorporated through the Constitution.”

Jeremy Scahill, Nation correspondent and author of Dirty Wars, said on “Democracy Now!” yesterday, “The idea that you can simply have one branch of government unilaterally and in secret declare that an American citizen should be executed or assassinated without having to present any evidence whatsoever, to me, is—we should view that with great sobriety about the implications for our country. The idea that you don’t give people the chance to respond to charges against them or to see the evidence against them should be shocking to all Americans.”

In conclusion, government officials and career analysts, whose commentary typically serve the national security state well, should not be able to exploit this moment to defend the Obama administration’s decision to assassinate al-Awlaki. Of course, that does not mean an analyst or pundit on television will not take advantage of this moment before the night is over.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."