Becoming Anwar al-Awlaki

Anwar al-Awlaki

Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Anwar al-Awlaki visited the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. He had been invited by a senior NGM editor to be part of a panel discussion that was convened as a briefing for NGM staff; Awlaki served as the expert on Islam.

Today, Awlaki is one of the world’s Most Wanted Men. He is a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He served as a spiritual mentor to Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) and has ties to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underwear Bomber) and Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square bomber). He’s allegedly involved in the recently thwarted bomb attack on two cargo planes. And the Obama administration has targeted him for assassination.

When did Awlaki become the terrorist we know today? Given National Geographic’s regional and cultural expertise — and given 20/20 hindsight — did we miss any red flags back in 2001? What questions should we have asked that might have shed light on who Awlaki is, or was in the process of becoming? What have we learned from this encounter?

We’d welcome the opportunity to pose the following questions to John Fahey, CEO of NGS:

1: Given our current awareness of the grave threat posed by Awlaki, what questions do you think NGS might have asked in 2001 that would have helped shed light on his ambitions and worldview?

2: What criteria does National Geographic apply to help readers distinguish a moderate Muslim or moderate Arab leader from a radical Islamist?

3: On October 1, 2010, National Geographic began publishing its new Arabic edition, which is now available in 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. What questions did NGS ask our publishing partner to be certain they will uphold our Society’s standards of accuracy, civility, and tolerance?

Zahi Hawass

4: Dr. Zahi Hawass is the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities — and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He was also just appointed to serve as an official adviser & contributor to National Geographic‘s new Arabic edition. He recently wrote that “the idea of killing children, old people, and women and ignoring taboos runs in the blood of the Palestinian Jews.” In an attempt to explain his beliefs, Dr. Hawass has said his choice of words was “tailored to convey my emotions to other Arabic speakers in an idiom that they would appreciate.”

• What exactly is this regional “idiom”?
• Is it okay for National Geographic magazine to describe “Palestinian Jews” one way to its Arabic audience (per Hawass), and another way to its English-speaking audience?
• Many observers believe this communications strategy — saying one thing to Arabs, and something entirely different to Westerners — has done irreparable harm to the Middle East peace process. What do you think, John?

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John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
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  • JR

    Okay. Now you are talking. But that ‘our’ society thing is jacks you up. So instead of connecting dots, you are just connecting crazy. This belongs in a serious news outlet.

    • Hi JR – After all our back-and-forths, you have no idea how happy I am to see you write: “Now you are talking.” No kidding — it feels like a breakthrough. Thank you for sticking with this, and for your kind words. Re: serious news outlet — you may get your wish. I’ve received emails from several national news outlets that want to cover this, but the election is taking priority. No promises from them, but we’ll see. I hope John Fahey sits down with them & explains what’s happening with Dr. Hawass, among other things. It would be good for (I can’t stop myself….) our Society.

      (Okay, okay… I’ll try to keep that “our” thing to a minimum. But don’t ever say I’m not flexible!)

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