Over the past two years, Yemeni-American jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has emerged as a key leader of al-Qaeda. His manipulation of Western media outlets as early as 2001 led many to consider him a “bridge builder between Islam and the West” (NPR), and he was frequently quoted by the likes of NPR, PBS, and the New York Times. On November 18, 2001, while serving as an imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., al-Awlaki was chosen by the Washington Post to answer readers’ questions about Ramadan. He discussed his opinion of the Western media, which he called “one-sided,” and explained how he choose to watch Al Jazeera instead.
“One-sided” is among the milder things al-Awlaki has called the Western media. In the summer 2010 issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Awlaki was quoted as saying, “Why does the vast majority of Western media outlets refer to jihadi media as ‘propaganda,’ when every media outlet in the world has an agenda to propagate for the purpose of altering mindsets in one way or another?”
Al-Awlaki’s January 2009 lecture “44 Ways to Jihad” included a section dedicated to “Fighting the Lies of the Western Media.” It states:
The perceptions of many Muslims are formed by the Western media. … The danger of the Western media stems from the fact that it puts on the cloak of truth and objectivity when in reality it is no more than the mouthpiece of the devil. … A Muslim should not believe Western sources unless they are confirmed by a trustworthy Muslim one.
In his latest message to the Muslim world, al-Awlaki defends the journalists of one such “trustworthy” Muslim source, Al Jazeera, and praises the Western media source WikiLeaks. The message, a six-minute video of his speech “A Message to the Members of the Media,” was released February 14, 2011, by the jihadi forum Shumukh Al-Islam. In it, al-Awlaki also accuses the U.S. and the West of using liberty and freedom of expression as a pretext to take over the world’s resources and treasures, and to oppress and deprive people of their rights. The recording received scant attention, primarily due to events in Egypt and throughout the region.
The Al Jazeera journalists that al-Awlaki names and defends in the speech have been accused of having links to al-Qaeda. In fact, Al Jazeera has a long history of presenting exclusive speeches by and interviews with some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, Taliban leaders, and, most recently, with al-Awlaki himself.
In the February 14 recording, al-Awlaki joined other jihadist groups, including the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) and Shumukh Al-Islam, in praising WikiLeaks and criticizing the U.S. government for shutting down websites which it deemed harmful. He said:
The war against the publication of truth [goes on], and, what is more, the U.S. is fighting to shut down websites like WikiLeaks, just because it reported facts about the American war in Iraq and about the conversations of American diplomats with their agents worldwide.
Later in his speech, al-Awlaki compared the U.S. campaign against WikiLeaks director Julian Assange to its pursuit of Al Jazeera journalists accused of terrorism.#more# He stated, “The U.S. [accuses] anyone who censures its corruption of being a terrorist, and dumps a sack full of [other] readymade accusations over him in order to designate him as one of its Muslim and other opponents. [The U.S.] has leveled a similar accusation at the owner of WikiLeaks, in order to keep [his site] busy and neutralize its work in disseminating the domestic secrets of the musty American [White] House.”
Al-Awlaki went on to denounce American freedom of expression, saying that it is actually an attempt to muzzle those who speak the truth — such as the aforementioned Al Jazeera employees:
No freedom of expression is afforded those who condemn the crimes of the U.S. and its agents, who rule [the world] by disseminating a great illusion called liberty, democracy, and human rights — phrases that are nothing but a cover for taking over the world’s resources. … [Any] journalist or member of the media who tries to expose the truth about the U.S. and its agents to the world is put to a [difficult] test, [as evidenced by] the imprisonment of Sa’id bin Zu’air for censuring the Saudi regime, by the arrests of Taysir ‘Aluni and Sami Al-Hajj for exposing the U.S.’s crimes in Afghanistan, and by the arrest in Yemen of liberal journalist ’Abd Al-Ilah Haidar Shai’ for censuring American crimes in Yemen.
It should be noted the individuals defended in al-Awlaki’s speech have in the past been similarly defended by Osama bin Laden. To read more about them and to read a full version of this report, go here.
— Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).