Following Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, last week, pundits advanced all sorts of theories as to how a member of the U.S. armed forces could have possibly been so influenced by al-Qaeda’s image of Islam that he took up arms against fellow soldiers. It soon became known that Hasan received inspiration (and e-mail instructions) from a charismatic al-Qaeda-linked cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, currently in hiding in Yemen, whose sermons were readily available on militant web sites.
Unlike those terrorists currently in detention in Guantanamo and elsewhere, there are two key points in Hasan’s background that set him apart: 1) Hasan (as far as we know) never left the U.S. to have direct contact with any militant group; and, 2) Hasan does not speak Arabic. It is this second point, which leads us to a troubling development, that will be taken up here.
In the early days following the 9/11 terror attacks, any communications attributed to either Osama bin-Laden, al-Qaeda’s head, or his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were either grainy video footage or audio tapes sent by foot courier to sympathetic media outlets such as al-Jazeera. Militant websites were amateurish and generally short-lived. What they had in common, however, was that they were all exclusively presented in Arabic. English translations, usually provided as an afterthought by non-native speakers, were crude and unsophisticated.
A cleric’s sermon, delivered in Arabic with the aim of calling the faithful to Jihad would have been useless to somebody like Hasan, as he wouldn’t have been able to understand a word of it. Lately, however, this has changed, and al-Qaeda has begun to utilize a potent new weapon in its efforts at spreading radical Islam’s message to Muslims in the West: the English language.
English has become, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the new lingua franca of the terrorist world. In fact, militant websites written primarily in Standard English now outnumber Arabic websites by a huge margin. From the AP report:
“The number of English-language sites sympathetic to al-Qaeda has risen from about 30 seven years ago to more than 200 recently,” said Abdulmanam Almushawah, head of a Saudi government program called Assakeena, which works to combat militant Islamic Web sites. “In contrast, Arabic-language radical sites have dropped to around 50, down from 1,000 seven years ago, because of efforts by governments around the world to shut them down,” he said.
What this means for us now is that potential jihadists in the U.S., who know only English, may still be effectively radicalized.
Al-Awlaki himself is a fluent English speaker with an American accent, and his sermons were made readily available through this increasing network of websites, all without the need for editing or sub-titles. This is a frightening development, as al-Qaeda is now able to get its message out to those people who were formerly out of reach linguistically.
A charismatic cleric’s sermon delivered in idiomatic English reaching the ears of an impressionable and mentally imbalanced Hassan-type zealot can have, as we have seen, deadly results.