Cleric took winding path to be ‘Pied Piper’ of jihad

While living in San Diego in the late 1990s, Anwar Awlaki regularly fished for albacore and shared his catch with a neighbor. At the local mosque where he preached, he delighted in playing soccer with young children and taking the teenagers paint-balling.

“He had an allure. He was charming,” Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director of an Islamic center in Falls Church, Va., where Awlaki later gave sermons, told reporters in 2009.

With his fashionable eyeglasses and fluent English, the U.S.-born radical cleric also had been called a “Pied Piper of jihadists,” an Internet phenomenon who produced video and audio recordings to lure Westerners to his extremist ideologies.

Awlaki, who had been linked to several terrorist plots in the U.S., was killed Friday in a joint CIA-military airstrike, U.S. officials said. He was 40.

His was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, N.M., where his father had moved from Yemen to study agricultural economics at New Mexico State University. At 7, Awlaki returned with his family to Yemen, and his father served as the country’s agriculture minister.


When he was 20, Awlaki returned to the U.S. to study civil engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. Fellow students later recalled him as soft-spoken, an average student who enjoyed table tennis.

He often mentioned to other students that he had spent a summer training with the Afghan mujahedin, Muslim fighters who battled the Soviet Union’s occupation in Afghanistan.

At an Islamic center in Fort Collins, Awlaki discovered that he had a flair for preaching when volunteers took turns giving the Friday sermon.

At 25, Awlaki moved to California to study education at San Diego State University. He preached sermons at a Sunni mosque bordering La Mesa and lived with his wife and two toddlers in a small adjoining house.

When a member of the mosque suggested that Awlaki record his lectures on compact discs, a popular series followed, beginning in 2000. More than 50 of the CDs were devoted to the “Life of Muhammad.”

San Diego police twice picked up Awlaki for soliciting prostitutes, and he was put on probation, according to news reports.

In 1999 and 2000, Awlaki was investigated by the FBI, but no criminal charges were filed against him. Around that time, he met two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and the FBI questioned him again after the 9/11 attacks.

Awlaki moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs in 2000 and pursued postgraduate studies at George Washington University. Two years later, he left for London, where he preached at mosques known for radical ideologies.

In 2004, he returned to Yemen with his Yemeni wife and their family. He was believed to have as many as five children.

Yemeni authorities arrested him in 2006 with a group of five Yemenis suspected of kidnapping a Shiite Muslim teenager for ransom. Soon after his release from jail in 2007, he returned to the center of his Awalik tribe in the southern province of Shabwa, considered an Al Qaeda stronghold.

A hint of what he expected from the future could be found in his farewell to Lincoln W. Higgie III, the San Diego neighbor with whom he shared the albacore, the New York Times reported in 2010.

When Higgie told him to stop by if he was ever in town, Higgie said that Awlaki replied, “I don’t think you’ll be seeing me. I won’t be coming back to San Diego again. Later on you’ll find out why.”