LONDON (Reuters) - A radical Muslim preacher linked by U.S. intelligence to a gunman who killed 13 people at a U.S. Army base is an influential voice in English-language Internet forums increasingly used by militants unfamiliar with Arabic.
Anwar al-Awlaki, has spent years publishing anti-U.S. views sympathetic to al Qaeda to his English-language followers on the Internet, using blogs, video and audio lectures and lengthy articles.
While not a household name in the Arab world, Awlaki, in his 30s, has a following in the West, where governments suspect views like his may help to radicalize potential militants who do not understand Arabic, the main language of al Qaeda missives.
U.S. intelligence agencies learned that the gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, had contacts with Awlaki late last year and they relayed that information to authorities before he went on the shooting spree on Thursday, U.S. officials have said.
The spotlight on Awlaki, one of whose favorite themes is the minority status of Muslims in the West, intensified when a blog was posted on his website in his name praising the killings and calling Hasan “a hero.”
Awlaki’s website was closed down shortly afterwards.
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, said Awlaki was one of several English-language preachers using new media to reach Web-savvy audiences in the West.
“This alternative media trend is gaining strength and is helping jihadis a lot,” he said. “They are doing well in this field.”
Radical Islamist recruitment is a concern in Europe because law enforcement agencies believe several thousand young Muslims on the continent, many of them South Asians unfamiliar with Arabic, are part of networks similar to the ones that carried out suicide bombings in London that killed 52 people in 2005 and bombings in Madrid that killed 191 in 2004.
Similar concerns have been growing in the United States following the arrests of several Muslim U.S. citizens in connection with suspected plots to attack targets there.
An American of Arab origin, Awlaki has had a varied multinational audience, to judge by the 5,138 “fans” listed as following a Facebook site in his name earlier on Wednesday, but experts suspect most of his readership are south Asian Muslims living in Europe and the United States.
Facebook said it had deemed the site a fake.
On that site, debate had raged about Awlaki’s blog.
A supporter posted: “To all the haters, there is no evidence that this man (Awlaki) is linked to any acts ... Even if he agreed with Nidal, remember this is a right protected under the American constitution which enables the right of free speech.”
Later on Wednesday that site was no longer available on Facebook. Other sites listed under his name that remained available hosted comments both supporting and criticizing him.
Barry Schnitt, Director, Policy Communications of Facebook, told Reuters: “It looks like some users reported the pages and profiles associated with the name Anwar al-Awlaki earlier today. Our professional reviewers deemed them to be fake and disabled them.”
“We often see that when a name is in the press, people try to create fake accounts that correspond.”
Jarret Brachman, a U.S. expert on al Qaeda, said Awlaki and Jamaican Islamist Abdullah Faisal had become the two top English-language militant preachers, in part because their rhetoric appealed to a spectrum of opinion.
“What makes them so appealing is that you can be an adherent, having only a fairly mild “radical quotient’, but these guys breathe enough fire to keep even the most hardline, hardcore (jihad enthusiast) satisfied.”
“They are accessible. Even fun. Awlaki has a great sense of humor ...His fans love him,” he said.
Editing by Louise Ireland