Americans have an unusual obsession with Anwar al-Awlaki. There is a pervasive belief among the chattering classes that he was an orator and propagandist of mythical stature. The man President Obama called the “leader of external operations” for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ultimately met his end in a US airstrike in 2011.The myth surrounding him, however, and the obsession with all things Awlaki live on.
Two successive US governments have found it impossible to stop killing his children. Pundits and counter-terrorism experts obsess over his outsized influence on the impressionable minds of the young. An international non-profit organization harasses YouTube on Twitter to censor his speeches. And now, a new Showtime documentary “American Jihad” examines the role Awlaki continues to play from the grave to “radicalize” Muslim Americans.
The reviews of the documentary have generally been positive. The Daily Beast called the documentary “a fascinating investigation into the burgeoning threat our (and all Western) nations face” from radical Islam. “Essential Viewing in Trump Era,” blared the Rolling Stone. The New York Times review agreed, claiming the documentary was “full of food for thought served at just the right moment.” Even the Los Angeles Times’ otherwise thoughtful critic declared that the documentary was “smart and measured.”
There is in fact nothing smart or measured about the documentary. The audience is treated to a series of Muslim Americans who carried out violent attacks and their links to Awlaki. There is a running commentary by an assortment of counter-terrorism experts and a few people drawn from the cottage industry of former-extremists-now-experts who explain how Awlaki’s dangerous ideas inspired these attacks.
Awlaki’s own transformation from the “moderate Muslim” of liberal dreams to the cartoonish villain of American nightmares is simply attributed to his exposure to Salafi-Jihadism in London.
The strange, evidence-free assumption about the unseemly power of ideology and extremist ideas to inspire violent attacks seems to be shared by the producers of the documentary as well as everyone in it. As former-extremist-now-expert Jesse Morton puts it, describing his own turn away from violent extremism, “you see the consequences of ideas in the real world and it is catastrophic.”
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan puts it more bluntly: “it is ideology that can cause an individual to kill in the name of caliphate.” Soufan also shares some ideas on how to fight violent extremism and not surprisingly they also involve ideology. “If we don’t kill the ideology,” he says, “we’re going to continue to play a game of whack-a-mole.”
The documentary makes much of this supposed link between ideology and violence. There are recurring scenes of dark, subterranean dwellings with laptops menacingly booming Awlaki’s exhortations for the believers to declare jihad on the infidels. It is radicalization in action, we are led to believe, happening now somewhere in the country, maybe because some intern at YouTube has been lax in taking down Awlaki lectures.
No one questions why such ideas have any power to begin with, although one expert in the documentary wonders why the United States is unable to “sell our values and our system to our own people.” It does not occur to anyone that perhaps the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State may be powerful because it can make some sense of people’s experience of the world.
Muslims in the United States and Europe have become considerably disenfranchised since 9/11, even more so since the election of Donald Trump, and are victims to routine racist violence, which is itself a counterpart to government violence against Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere.
It is not difficult to understand why an ideology providing an explanation for these quotidian experiences and imperial geopolitics, framing these events in a particular religious gloss, and suggesting a way out of one’s impotence and toward political agency and confrontation with the source of all such evil would be appealing to some.
The fanciful America that experts in the documentary seem to religiously believe in, one which can do no wrong, prevents any of them from recognizing these material bases for the potency and appeal of extremist ideology.
Instead, the documentary spends most of its time on how one wrong click on the Internet can begin the process which inevitably ends in an attack on innocent people (“the average time is about ten months for them to be indoctrinated,” warns one expert, as if describing the gradual deterioration of a disease-ridden body).
By now there are innumerable studies—including many by British and American government and intelligence agencies—which conclude that western policies contribute to the recruitment of militant Islamist groups.
To take a single example, an intelligence assessment carried out by the Los Angeles division of the FBI and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC) looked at 57 terrorist plots from 2001 to 2010 and concluded that “much of the activity stemmed from a perception that the United States is at war with Islam and jihad is the correct and obligatory response.”
While it conceded that extremist violence may have been “sometimes passively influenced by Internet provocateurs,” it was very much circumspect about such influence. “It is difficult to quantify the degree to which Islamist materials and ideologues … played a part in the radicalization of the persons included in this assessment,” it concluded.
“Radicalization” itself is a fuzzy term. As some experts have noted, many of those who hold extremist ideas never actually carry out violence and those who do carry out violence do not necessarily hold extremist ideas. One may in fact be “radicalized” and pose no threat at all.
There is a wide gap between the conclusions of academic studies and intelligence assessments and the otherworldly appeal ascribed to Awlaki in the documentary. But it is not without reason. Awlaki and his sermons freely available on the internet serve as a useful symbol one can point to and deflect attention away from US policies which are taken to be blameless.
It is no wonder that by the end the documentary seamlessly transforms into an advert for the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives at a time when the Trump administration is considering rebranding them in a way which would drain them of all Muslim support. The entire raison d’être of CVE initiatives is to dissociate “violent extremism” from policies which continually empower it. Awlaki can be marshalled before an audience as a convenient prop to cultivate fear of “homegrown extremism” as well as justify such policies.
Instead of looking at the world which produces someone like Awlaki, “American Jihad” takes Awlaki to be the reason such a world exists. Instead of asking what material conditions facilitate the influence of extremist ideas and advocating for steps to rectify those conditions, it simply seeks banish such ideas from the public sphere. This is the language of the War on Terror, retrofitted for liberal sensibilities. Ultimately, the documentary’s focus on propaganda is dripping with irony given that it does not rise above the level of propaganda itself.