YouTube removes 50,000 videos of imam who inspired terror attacks

Though killed in 2011 US drone strike, American-born Anwar al-Awlaki continued to recruit for al-Qaeda in online video clips

American-born al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was apparently a hero of Terry Lee Loewen's (CC-BY-SA/Muhammad ud-Deen/Wikipedia)
American-born al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was apparently a hero of Terry Lee Loewen's (CC-BY-SA/Muhammad ud-Deen/Wikipedia)

YouTube recently removed some 50,000 videos of a deceased radical American imam and al-Qaeda propagandist.

Despite being killed in a US drone strike in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki continued to inspire Islamic terror through online videos. The New York Times reported that a few months ago a YouTube search for the radical preacher found over 70,000 videos. On Monday the same search yielded only about 18,300 results.

The videos inciting attacks against the West have been removed from the streaming video platform, and the videos that remain are only about his life or clips refuting his teachings.

A spokesperson for YouTube told The Times that the removals were initially done manually, but that using a digital fingerprint of each video the platform was able to remove all copies of the clips, and prevent them being uploaded in the future.

The spokesperson added that according to its terms of use, YouTube “strictly prohibits content intended to recruit for terrorist organizations, incite violence, celebrate terrorist attacks or otherwise promote acts of terrorism.”

Terror experts say al-Awlaki was a dangerous inciter of homegrown terror. He spoke American English, and his sermons were widely available online. And since he was killed in Yemen on September 30, 2011 — martyred, in the eyes of his followers — those materials took on an almost mythic quality. His primary message: Muslims are under attack and have a duty to carry out attacks on non-believers at home.

This is the second time that YouTube has removed videos from the terrorist preacher.

In 2010, YouTube removed videos in which al-Awlaki called for holy war, saying they violated its guidelines prohibiting “incitement to commit violent acts.” In one 45-minute video, al-Awlaki said US deaths are justified and encouraged, citing what he called US intentional killing of Muslim civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“He broke bad,” said John Pistole, former FBI deputy director and former director of the Transportation Security Administration. “He lived here, was born here. He was obviously very persuasive, a very effective communicator.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted in the Boston Marathon bombing. (AP/FBI, File)

Removing the video clips from YouTube does not mean that Awlaki’s teaching are no longer available. There are many other video-hosting websites, as well as sites on the dark web and direct messaging services.

Among the attackers who investigators and terror experts say were inspired by al-Awlaki and his videos: the couple who carried out the San Bernardino, California, shootings, which left 14 people dead in December, and the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others in April 2013.

Authorities have said al-Awlaki knew two of the September 11 hijackers when he was the imam of a Falls Church, Virginia, mosque, but didn’t seem a threat, even scoring an invite to lunch at the Pentagon as part of a moderate Muslim outreach program after the 2001 attacks.

But al-Awlaki’s essays and speeches went from providing encouragement to would-be militant fighters to playing an operational role for al-Qaida, prompting former president Barack Obama’s administration to add him to the government’s list of wanted terror suspects.

Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police, September 19, 2016, in Linden, New Jersey. (Ed Murray/NJ Advance Media via AP)

By 2007, an informant at a New Jersey trial testified, one of five foreign-born Muslims said he was ready to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, after watching a video of an al-Awlaki lecture he considered a religious decree to attack American soldiers.

Al-Awlaki was emailing Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, before his 2009 shooting attack at Fort Hood, Texas, which killed 13 people.

Authorities said al-Awlaki also worked with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a recruit to al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, who tried unsuccessfully to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives in his underwear.

“It’s a watershed moment on the question of whether we’re going to allow the unchecked proliferation of cyberjihad,” Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of the Counter Extremism Project, a research organization that has long called for Mr. Awlaki’s recordings to be removed from the web, told The Times. “You just don’t want to make it easy for people to listen to a guy who wants to harm us.”

However, removing the videos from public view may make them more dangerous.

Restricting or removing speech considered offensive or dangerous doesn’t protect people, Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project,said a year ago.

“People can’t respond to it or condemn it,” he said. “It drives the speech underground.”

Trying to remove it, Handeyside added, “is ultimately futile and possibly counterproductive.”

AP contributed to this report.

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