The Geopolitical Reading List: Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad

Edwin Tran reviews Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’ new book Incitment: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad, which charts the radical preacher’s political developments, examines the impacts he has had on the jihadist world, and also draws lessons for counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism more broadly. This is a must-read for anybody interested in how radicals inspire their followers towards extremism and terrorism.

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The figure of Anwar al-Awlaki is larger than the physical person. This point is absolutely undeniable. Through his lectures, his translations, and his death, Anwar al-Awlaki has helped influence hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals toward the route of violent extremism and radicalism. Indeed, Anwar al-Awlaki’s relationships to key terrorists are myriad and diverse. He has acted as a spiritual adviser to several of the September 11 hijackers; he personally corresponded with Nidal Hassan of the Fort Hood Massacre, and his own lectures have rallied large numbers of foreigners to leave their home countries for Syria and Iraq. Despite this sizeable influence, many discussions of al-Awlaki focus solely on his tenure as a leader for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and his subsequent assassination by President Barack Obama. This view is narrow and often focuses on discussions of legality, thereby forgoing a consideration on al-Awlaki’s holistic influence on the wider Islamist-extremism movement. 

The work of Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens rejects this limited viewpoint. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, an expert on terrorism for the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, chooses to view the story of Anwar al-Awlaki from a more broad perspective. Incitement explores the evolution of Anwar al-Awlaki’s own theological framing and political praxis. It reveals the more fluid nature of al-Awlaki’s religious background and how geopolitical events like the War on Terror guided his own development. The book delves into many of al-Awlaki’s precursors, influences, and contemporary collaborators. It is important to note that Incitement chooses not to detail a full biographic account of Anwar al-Awlaki’s life. As more intimate details of Anwar’s personal life are impossible to come by, the book instead focuses on his political evolution.

Incitement does not focus solely on al-Awlaki though. After covering his ideological development and framework, the book dives into three specific case studies, highlighting al-Awlaki’s involvement and influence. These include the 2009 Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nidal Hassan of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, and the American propagandist Zachery Adam Chesser. In each of these examples, Meleagrou-Hitchens expertly demonstrates just how powerful al-Awlaki’s influence was and how his works were instrumental in radicalizing these individuals. Meleagrou-Hitchens also highlights the underlying conditions that made these individuals susceptible to radicalist propaganda, such as family turmoil and social isolation. 

In this way, Incitement reveals itself to be an incredible work that goes beyond the realms of Islamism and Jihadism. Rather, many of the points made by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens are applicable to many extremist movements. The underlying conditions of individuals like Nidal Hassan and Zachery Adam Chesser are elements found in many other extremists. Conflicted populations searching for easy answers to life’s problems are in general more susceptible to these types of movements. Meanwhile, the analysis of Anwar al-Awlaki’s ideological position as being reactive and flexible, bending to the changing dynamics of geopolitics and current events, is absolutely synonymous with the adaptability of other extremist movements. One can only think of the January 6th storming of the U.S. capitol and the reactiveness of the Qanon movement for parallels. 

As such, Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is an excellent work. Not only is it well-written and engaging, but it is also an important study to assess violent extremism in aggregate. It highlights the routes of extremism and radicalization. It demonstrates how new technologies have resulted in new modes of extremist recruitment. Perhaps most importantly, the book showcases how a single man, through words alone, could capably target vulnerable populations in order to mobilize them as future extremists. For anyone looking for further insight into the individual lens for violent extremism, Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is an immensely significant read. 

Copies of Incitement can be found by clicking here

Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2021 reading list.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Anwar al-Awlaki sitting on couch, lightened (Credit: Taken by Muhammed Ud-Deen, lightened by Greg AL)