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An Update On Radical American Cleric Al-Awlaki

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

A pattern is emerging in the way young Muslims in the U.S. are becoming radicalized. It isnt happening in mosques or in small study groups; it's happening on the Internet. Young men are finding radical clerics on the Web and at their direction, they're taking up violent jihad.

The Pakistani-American who allegedly tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square earlier this month says he was radicalized through the Internet. One of his inspirations was an American-born imam named Anwar al-Awlaki. We'll talk about him in a moment.

Now, intelligence officials tell NPR that another man, a radical cleric named Abdullah Faisal, also played a role in inspiring the attack. Faisal recently set up shop in the Caribbean.

NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston went to Jamaica to try to talk to him.

(Soundbite of splashing)

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: We actually met Abdullah Faisal here, by a hotel pool in Montego Bay, Jamaica, last week. We'd set up an interview with him weeks in advance but when he arrived, he demanded money for the interview. I refused. But the two of us did have a long chat. He's still as fiery as ever.

He said he openly supports and preaches violent jihad because Muslims have had their resources stolen and their women raped by non-Muslims. He says that behavior requires Muslims to fight back.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ABDULLAH FAISAL (Islamic Cleric): This war is called (Foreign language spoken) - War Against the Apostates. You know that...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Thats part of an Abdullah Faisal lecture you can find on the Web. His words are considered so incendiary that a British court sent him to prison back in 2003. It ruled that he solicited murder and stirred up racial hatred by trying to justify the killing of non-believers - specifically Jews, Hindus and Americans.

Mr. MUSTAFA MOHAMMED (Muslim Leader): So a lot of us were very surprised when we heard these allegation against him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mustafa Mohammed is a Muslim leader in Jamaica. We met him at his mosque in Kingston. He was washing before midday prayers. He and Abdullah Faisal knew each other as young men on the island, and Mohammed didnt want believe that his friend had embraced radical Islam.

Mr. MOHAMMED: It was not until we actually listened to some of the tapes, and we realized that what he has been accused of, there are some credit to them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mustafa Mohammed remembered him as charismatic.

Mr. MOHAMMED: He gravitates people towards him. He's very eloquent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullah Faisal was deported back to Jamaica earlier this year. That put Mustafa Mohammed in an awkward position. As head of the Islamic Council in Jamaica, he ended up barring his old friend from speaking at local mosques.

Mr. MOHAMMED: He has been banned from giving the Friday sermons, teaching in classes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Have you ever banned someone before?

Mr. MOHAMMED: No, this is the first time I had to make this decision, and it was not something that came easily. And especially, you're speaking about a person that has a lot to offer the Muslim community.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's clear he wishes Abdullah Faisal had decided to use his gifts educating Muslims on the island, rather than promoting radical Islam. And while there are only about 5,000 Muslims in Jamaica, the number is slowly growing.

(Soundbite of laughing children)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sheik Musa Tijani works with Mohammed at the Central Mosque in Kingston. He's the educational director at the nursery school there.

Sheik MUSA TIJANI (Educational Director): Salam Alaikum.

IN UNISON: Wa Alaikum, salam.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ten years ago, the mosque school was struggling to survive. It only had 10 kids enrolled. Now, it has 65. The little girls are wearing hijabs and high-top sneakers. The boys are in a uniform - little, green T-shirts and shorts. I asked Tijani about Abdullah Faisal's following in Jamaica, and he dismisses his importance.

Sheik TIJANI: All the Muslims in Jamaica, they hear about his name but they don't really see him as a big man.

TEMPLE-RASTON: While Tijani may not see him as a big man, U.S. intelligence is worried that Abdullah Faisal could become one by recruiting followers in Jamaica - a place where there are lots of poor, disaffected youth without many prospects. And they have an even bigger concern: Abdullah Faisal's global reach on the Web. According to intelligence officials, he launched a jihadi chat room about a month ago. Some 40 to 50 people regularly sign in to the sessions, and officials believe most of those people are in the U.S.

Intelligence officials tell me that the Times Square bomber listened to Faisal's Internet lectures and tried to contact him. I asked him about that. Faisal said he doesn't think he got any emails from the Times Square bomber. Whats more, he said, Muslims should confine themselves to the battlefield - to Iraq or Afghanistan - not attack Times Square.

Still, Muslim leader Mustafa Mohammed says he understands the concern about Faisal's return to Jamaica.

Mr. FAISAL: We are hoping and praying that it is just a concern that has no footing to stand on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. law enforcement is quite worried that he might be able to find even a small audience. Are they correct to be worried?

Mr. MOHAMMED: Of course. And it is also a concern to us, definitely.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, Mustafa Mohammed isnt alone in worrying about Abdullah Faisal's return to Jamaica.

Melissa, you remember- I met Faisal at my hotel. It was an American hotel in Montego Bay. And I found out later that the Jamaican staff all knew exactly who he was and got pretty upset when he walked through the lobby.

BLOCK: They got upset? How did they get upset?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, later after he left, the assistant manager of the hotel called me into her office. And she said, look, this is an American hotel and seeing this man pass through the lobby, she said it really worried her. And we were talking for about 15 minutes, and then I realized her concern wasnt just that he might be a terrorist, but that I might be one, too, and that the two of us might be planning an attack on her hotel because it was a prime American target in Jamaica.

BLOCK: Now, Dina, Abdullah Faisal, the man you met in Jamaica, is one of two people that investigators told you inspired the Times Square bomber.

EMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Apparently, he told investigator that - and this is the way he put it, in his words - only two imams have it right: Abdullah Faisal, and this cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. And Awlaki, you remember, is the man who apparently was in contact with the Fort Hood shooter, and then the young man who tried to blow up the U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

BLOCK: And the second cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, released a new video this week. Tell us about that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. It's a 14-minute - sort of interview-style video thats one of the more interesting and really comprehensive things he's put out so far. You know, to now, he's sort of danced around this issue of whether or not U.S. civilians are legitimate targets. And he said - after the Fort Hood shootings that they were justified because soldiers were going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and those were the people who were killed.

And now in this latest video, he says - and this video is in Arabic - that targeting civilians is just fine. He says that civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan make that justified. And the fact that, you know, U.S. people have actually voted the Obama administration into office is reason enough to see them as complicit in all of this. And that's an argument that Osama bin Laden has made for some time, but thats new for Awlaki.

BLOCK: Now, the CIA has put Awlaki on its capture or kill list. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has said the U.S. is actively trying to find him. Did he make mention of that in the video?

TEMPLE-RASTON: He did. And he kind of taunted the Americans about this and said that he wasnt hiding from them, and that he was moving freely around Yemen without any sort of concern, and that all these various tribes in Yemen were protecting him because they so dislike the Americans. And he basically said he wasnt worried about the Americans finding him.

BLOCK: OK. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Thats NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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