The Enduring Appeal of Al-`Awlaqi’s “Constants on the Path of Jihad”

Oct 31, 2011

On September 30, 2011, a U.S. missile strike killed Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi, who was operating in Yemen for al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although his death will be a loss for AQAP, al-`Awlaqi’s greatest contribution to the jihadist cause, his six-hour audio lecture titled “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” will persist in the years ahead. This speech may be the single most influential work of jihadist incitement in the English language. “Constants” has influenced dozens toward violence, including the Fort Dix Six, a number of Somali-Americans recruited into al-Shabab, Alaskans Paul and Nadia Rockwood, New Jersey residents Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, the Toronto 18 in Canada, and Rajib Karim in the United Kingdom. A Taliban recruitment cell in London, uncovered by officials there in September 2011, was using the audio recording as a recruitment tool.[1]

This article examines Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” showing how the cleric expanded and revised an Arabic text to widen its appeal in the West and beyond. It also argues that while al-`Awlaqi’s death will put an end to his operational planning, his inspirational contributions will continue to radicalize individuals toward violence in the years ahead.

“Constants on the Path of Jihad”
“Constants” is not Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s original work. The jihadist tract was written in Arabic after 9/11 by the ideologue Yusuf al-`Uyayri, a veteran of the jihad against the Soviet Union. Al-`Uyayri later founded al-Qa`ida in Saudi Arabia.[2] Al-`Uyayri was the author of several influential works on jihad that have been widely distributed online. He was killed by Saudi security forces in 2003.[3] Al-`Awlaqi’s translation of “Constants” into English has become a classic of radicalization in the West, not just because of al-`Awlaqi’s formidable language skills, but also his creative interpretation of the original text with expanded religious stories and real-life examples.

Al-`Awlaqi’s “Constants” is believed to have been recorded around 2005, after he left the United States due to suspicion about his role in the 9/11 attacks.[4] In early 2004, he moved to Yemen. Although al-`Awlaqi’s lectures had taken on a militant, anti-Western tone during this time, his public work studiously omitted overt incitements to violence, possibly reflecting an evolving ideological stance or simply a desire to avoid prosecution. He had previously discussed jihad in largely historical or theoretical contexts. “Constants” represented a meaningful step forward in al-`Awlaqi’s path toward becoming an avowed terrorist.[5] By 2010, he would become publicly affiliated with AQAP.[6]

Al-`Awlaqi took some liberties with the translation of al-`Uyayri’s work, altering the text in certain places and expanding it in others. At least two English translations also exist in text form, one transcribing al-Awlaqi’s translation but with additional editing, the other more closely following the Arabic original but with some sections clearly influenced by al-`Awlaqi’s version. Versions of al-`Awlaqi’s commentary have recently been translated into Urdu and Bengali, among other languages, and posted on extremist forums.[7] These translations testify to the fact that the Yemeni-American cleric did more than simply render al-`Uyayri’s original text into English.

The Elements of “Constants”
“Constants on the Path of Jihad” is a discussion of the eternal and unchanging principles that—in the view of Yusuf al-`Uyayri and largely adopted here by Anwar al-`Awlaqi—require Muslims to fight continuously on behalf of their faith until the Day of Judgment. The work is largely a response to what al-`Uyayri saw as an innovation in Islamic thought that allows for situations in which jihad might be temporarily suspended or cease entirely. The introduction of al-`Uyayri’s text, as translated by al-`Awlaqi, stated: “In our miserable time, he says, in this miserable time, we need to go back to the constants, because we find some people among us today are trying to change the constants of jihad into variables.”[8]

What follows is a multidimensional but circular argument about why jihad must continue without interruption. The crux of this argument revolves around six “constants” of jihad:

1. Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment.
2. Jihad does not rely on a specific leader.
3. Jihad is not tied to a specific land.
4. Jihad does not depend on a specific battle.
5. Victory in jihad does not necessarily mean military victory.
6. Defeat in jihad does not necessarily mean military defeat.

All of the constants derive to a greater or lesser extent from the first constant and are self-justifying in reference to it. For instance, the third constant states that jihad is not tied to a specific land. The explanation offered is that if jihad were tied to a specific land, then jihad would end when that land was conquered by the mujahidin. Since jihad must continue until the Day of Judgment, therefore, it must not be tied to a specific land.[9]

Under the fourth, fifth and sixth constants, al-`Uyayri presented detailed arguments on the semantic definitions of victory and defeat, with an eye toward justifying the continuity of jihad even when it defies conventional logic.

Eleven definitions for victory are provided, only one of which includes standard military victory. Circular logic is well-represented among the definitions. For instance, going on jihad is a victory over Satan, who does not want you to go on jihad; staying with jihad is a victory over one’s temptation to leave jihad.[10] According to al-`Awlaqi’s translation of al-`Uyayri,

The fourth meaning of victory…When you go out in the path of Allah, and become a mujahid, you have achieved victory against the ones who try to discourage you from jihad [in the way of Allah]. The ones who speak your tongue and claim to be a Muslim, but are twisting the evidence to try to discourage you from becoming a mujahid.[11]

Some of the definitions have broader ramifications, which can be seen in al-`Awlaqi’s later work. For instance, one form of victory is what al-`Uyayri called the “battle of ideas,” which al-`Awlaqi reframed as “the battle for hearts and minds.” Al-`Awlaqi would later release an entire lecture on “The Battle for Hearts and Minds,” expanding his commentary from “Constants.”[12]

Al-`Awlaqi’s Revisions to Al-`Uyayri
Although much has been made of Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s mastery of the English language and Western idiom, these are only tools in the service of his greater skill as an emotionally evocative orator and storyteller. In line with his strengths, al-`Awlaqi’s interpretation of al-`Uyayri’s work is a mix of verbatim translations and revisions of varying scale.

Al-`Awlaqi related al-`Uyayri’s text in informal and idiomatic language, which is important to expanding its appeal, but his more significant contributions come from an injection of extended storytelling into the treatise. In the original “Constants,” al-`Uyayri followed his previously established style of rigorous religious argumentation,[13] marshaling Qur’an and hadith as citations to bolster his arguments, often quoting them in minimalist form to make very narrow points.

Al-`Awlaqi expanded al-`Uyayri’s citations into living, breathing stories, often at significantly greater length, transforming the legalistic argument into an emotionally and politically loaded discourse. For example, one of the definitions of victory given under the fifth constant is self-sacrifice for the cause of Allah. Al-`Uyayri cited in a utilitarian manner the story of the “People of the Ditch,” based on a reference in the Qur’an subsequently expanded in hadith form.

In the story, a king is persecuting believers in Allah. He orders them to renounce their religion or be thrown into a flaming ditch or trench to die. All of the believers throw themselves in. One woman, carrying her baby, hesitates, and Allah inspires the baby to speak to her, saying “Oh Mother! You are following al-Haqq [the truth]! So be firm!” As a result, she carries him into the fire and succeeds in achieving martyrdom.

Al-`Uyayri presented the story in a paragraph of efficient text, as scholarly evidence that maintaining one’s religion in the face of death is a form of victory. Al-`Awlaqi, however, told the story in lavish detail, drawing on both his knowledge of the source and his own imagination:

“And the method of their death in itself is so horrific that we can only appreciate how great their steadfastness was. They were told to jump alive in trenches filled with burning wood. And they were jumping one after another in these trenches, burning to death. They chose the fire of this dunya [world] rather than the fire of the hereafter.”[14]

In al-`Awlaqi’s version, the story of the woman and the child becomes more than just an illustration. For al-`Awlaqi, it represented a broader principle. Since the woman walked up to the trench before hesitating, al-`Awlaqi argued (in a lengthy departure from al-`Uyayri’s script) that God provided a miracle to help her complete the act of martyrdom:

“This woman, because she took the first step, and that is the willingness to jump in the trench, when she was about to retreat, Allah helped her. So if you take that first step towards Allah, Allah will make many steps towards you. If you walk towards Allah, Allah will run towards you.”[15]

In this manner, al-`Awlaqi transformed al-`Uyayri’s perfunctory citation into an emotional journey that engages the listener and broadens the original point to emphasize the importance of taking even one step toward jihad.

In a handful of instances, al-`Awlaqi entirely repurposed al-`Uyayri’s original text. During the discussion of definitions of defeat under the sixth constant, for example, al-`Awlaqi respectfully complained that the types of defeat outlined by al-`Uyayri are “all kind of similar.” When he came to a section with the Arabic heading “Flattery to the Unbelievers,”[16] al-`Awlaqi announced “I’m going to translate this as ‘compromise,’” then proceeded to discuss good and bad forms of compromise with examples specifically tailored to Western Muslims:

“To give an example, you invited a kafir [non-believer] over to dinner to give him da`wa [call to Islam]. Here you have given up some of your dunya [worldly status] by inviting him and spending all of that money, for the sake of what? For the sake of religion. So this is something allowed…[In contrast,] you have this kafir who’s a friend of yours, or he’s your boss. All right, he’s your boss. And you know that your pay comes through him…So he comes to you and tells you, you know, ‘What’s this thing, man, about jihad and can you explain to me what jihad means?’ And you go, ‘Jihad is the jihad of nafs [fighting temptation]. And there’s nothing in Islam that allows using violence.’ Here you’re giving away your religion. You’re compromising your religion for the sake of what? For the sake of your dunya.”

This passage illustrates al-`Awlaqi’s grasp of the tensions experienced by Western Muslims who believe in the concept of military jihad or who may feel ambivalent about jihadists fighting Western countries. More importantly, it adds what the original text lacks—a clear example of how the principles outlined by al-`Uyayri apply to a real-life situation. Al-`Uyayri provided only a conceptual framework; al-`Awlaqi demonstrated the practical implications of how these concepts might have an impact on his audience, a powerful rhetorical technique.

Arguably failing to take his own advice from the passage above, al-`Awlaqi intentionally omitted from his translation references to Mullah Omar, Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida found in the original text.[17] Given the period during which the lectures were recorded, this likely reflected al-`Awlaqi’s interest in avoiding prosecution. It also has the added benefit of making the lecture more generalized and less potentially alienating to people on the verge of radicalization.

Despite several such changes, the vast majority of al-`Awlaqi’s “Constants” reflects the original text. Media reports and other analysis often ascribe to al-`Awlaqi the views presented in “Constants.” It is important to remember that al-`Awlaqi is an interpreter of “Constants” and not its author. Although al-`Awlaqi took liberties, most of the audio lecture is properly attributed to al-`Uyayri. Al-`Awlaqi clearly shared many of al-`Uyayri’s views, but he also translated sections, such as a discussion of takfiri ideology,[18] which do not easily mesh with other, more personal works throughout the course of his career. Al-`Awlaqi, for example, demonstrated significant discomfort with what he saw as the indiscriminate use of takfiri principles to justify labeling Muslims as apostates.[19]

Influence of “Constants” on Al-`Awlaqi’s Later Work
Echoes of “Constants” can be heard throughout al-`Awlaqi’s later career. A notable example is his 2008 lecture titled “The Battle for Hearts and Minds,” which borrowed heavily from al-`Awlaqi’s reinterpretation of al-`Uyayri’s “battle of ideas.”

For instance, both works cited a 2005 U.S. News and World Report article describing a RAND Corporation study that attempted to define “moderate Islam.” Al-`Awlaqi’s thoughts are far more developed in the 2008 work, which is fundamentally original and tuned specifically to Muslims in the West, but the similarities are apparent to even a casual listener.

More significantly, the influence of “Constants” can be seen in al-`Awlaqi’s overt involvement in terrorism since 2009, both operationally and in terms of incitement. As an “operational” leader, al-`Awlaqi could claim virtually no conventional successes. The Christmas Day 2009 bomb plot, carried out by one of his students under his direct guidance, succeeded only in delivering severe burns to the would-be suicide bomber. Al-`Awlaqi tried, unsuccessfully, to get British Airways employee Rajib Karim to facilitate a plot to smuggle another bomb onto an airplane in 2010.[20]

There is only one example of conventional success among the terrorists with whom al-`Awlaqi had direct contact—U.S. soldier Nidal Malik Hasan, who in 2009 killed 13 U.S. military personnel during a shooting spree at the Ft. Hood military base in Texas. Yet even this claim is weak. Al-`Awlaqi disavowed providing any direct guidance for Hasan’s attack, a claim that appears to be confirmed by subsequent reporting on the FBI’s investigation into e-mail exchanges between the two.[21]

Yet following the definitions in “Constants,” al-`Awlaqi celebrated victories found in failure. Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-`Awlaqi and his followers under the flag of AQAP, gloated over a thwarted plot to bomb UPS cargo planes, despite its conventional failure, citing the success of provoking increased security costs in the West (an additional dimension of thought frequently cited by al-Qa`ida but not explicitly discussed in “Constants”).[22] Other issues of Inspire discuss the relative merits of conventional victory vs. martyrdom, coming down in favor of the latter. The overall emphasis in Inspire, as in “Constants,” is on action and preparation rather than victory.[23]

Although “Constants” does not directly address the concept of “lone wolf” terrorism, its principles logically empower such acts, especially its globalization of jihad (which is not dependent on a “particular land”) and its emphasis on taking any kind of action over taking pragmatic action calculated to achieve a strategic result.

Conclusion
Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s inspirational influence has had a far greater impact than his operational role in AQAP.[24] Al-`Awlaqi’s death will prevent him from creating new works of incitement, but it will do little to blunt the impact of “Constants” in the future. Today, both the audio and text versions of “Constants” are widely distributed online as downloads, on hosted web pages and through outlets such as YouTube (despite efforts to have it removed).[25]

The original author of “Constants,” Yusuf al-`Uyayri, has been dead since 2003, but his original work in Arabic continues to motivate aspiring terrorists.[26] The example of `Abdullah `Azzam demonstrates that jihadist ideologues can measure their shelf-life in decades. `Azzam was killed in 1989, yet he remains one of the most important radicalizing figures in the jihadist milieu.[27] Such examples show that death will not silence al-`Awlaqi’s message. The impact of his body of work may ultimately be magnified by the perception among some Muslims that he was unfairly targeted and killed by the United States.

Even in the short time since al-`Awlaqi’s death, “Constants on the Path of Jihad” has expanded its reach beyond radicalized Western Muslims with its introduction into new languages and theaters of operation. There is every reason to assume that this trajectory will continue.

J.M. Berger is editor of INTELWIRE.com and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.

[1] Michelle Shephard, “The Powerful Online Voice of Jihad,” Toronto Star, October 18, 2009; Duncan Gardham, “Former Taliban Jailed for Recruiting Young Men on Streets of Britain,” Telegraph, September 9, 2011; Andrea Elliott, “A Call to Jihad, Answered in America,” New York Times, July 11, 2009; Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s Disciples: Three Case Studies,” CTC Sentinel 4:7 (2011).

[2] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] William McCants and Jarret Brachman, Militant Ideology Atlas (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006).

[4] Shortly after, al-`Awlaqi wore out his welcome in the United Kingdom as well due to the increasingly radical nature of his lectures.

[5] J.M. Berger, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War in the Name of Islam (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2011); Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “As American as Apple Pie: How Anwar al-Awlaqi Became the Face of Western Jihad,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), September 2011.

[6] Meleagrou-Hitchens, “As American as Apple Pie: How Anwar al-Awlaqi Became the Face of Western Jihad.”

[7]  Albar Sheikh, “Anwar al-Awlaki’s Post-Mortem Presence on Urdu Jihadi Forums,” October 25, 2011, available at www.albarsheikh.com/2011/10/25/anwar-al-awlakis-post-mortem-presence-on-urdu-jihadi-forums; “Al-Qadisiyyah Media: The Bangla Translation of the Audio Lecture: Constants on the Path of Jihad,”  available at www.ansar1.info.

[8] Anwar al-`Awlaqi, “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” audio lecture, 2005.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anwar al-`Awlaqi, “The Battle for Hearts and Minds,” audio recording, 2008.

[13] For example, “Haqiqat al-harb al-salibiyya al-jadida,” cited in Militant Ideology Atlas.

[14] Al-`Awlaqi, “Constants on the Path of Jihad.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Translation by Aaron Y. Zelin, researcher, Brandeis University, and curator of Jihadology.net.

[17] Al-`Awlaqi, “Constants on the Path of Jihad.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Inspire 5 (2011). Also see “CIA Islam,” a recording by Abdullah al-Faisal, which rebukes al-`Awlaqi for having too lenient a view on takfir.

[20] “Awlaki’s Legacy: A Dozen Terror Plots Linked to Al Qaeda Leader,” ABC News, September 30, 2011.

[21] “Fort Hood: Hasan Asked Awlaki If It Was Okay to Kill American Soldiers,” ABC News, December 23, 2009.

[22] Inspire 3 (2010).

[23] Inspire 4 (2010).

[24] “Awlaki’s Legacy: A Dozen Terror Plots Linked to Al Qaeda Leader.”

[25] See, for example, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB1bGrHPwoM, accessed September 18, 2011.

[26] Personal interview, online jihadist Abu Suleiman al-Nasser, September 19, 2011.

[27] Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed a British member of parliament in 2010, cited a lecture from `Abdullah `Azzam for why she decided to engage in violence.