Anwar Al-Awlaki: A Life and Death in Images
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Academic Programs and Concentrations
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In Anwar Al-Awlaki: A Life and Death in Images, I appropriated various primary documents—photographs, video stills, lectures, FBI interviews, legal documents, Google satellite and street view imagery, and government investigation files—to plot out the timeline of an American who went from a seemingly all-American life, to preaching moderation in the face of violence, to preaching hated, and then to his death in his ancestral Yemen. I wanted to answer many questions with this project: What are the aesthetics of radicalization and terror? What does the war on terror look like, especially through the lens of a singular life intertwined in the changing landscape of war (and terrorism)? What does this new war look like? How do people’s representations—of themselves by themselves, or by the media, or by political groups—change in this new way of waging war? To what ends are these various representations used? The Washington Post published photographs of Awlaki where he has a rather calm, serious, mournful look. Later, in a video lecture directed “to the American people, also to Muslims in the west in general and particularily in America,” Awlaki combined traditional Yemeni garb with a camoflague military jacket. How can we understand this figure through these differing representations?
I laid out images and documents chronologically, with minimal interpretation of said documents, so that the viewer might divine their own story connecting all of these dots. Was this man always a preacher of violence who simply toned-down his rhetoric and style to protect against investigative eyes, or was he a Muslim on the edge between two worlds—one western, and secular, and the other angered, devout, and extremist—who simply chose a different path? Through Al-Awlaki, we can see the course for some second-generation Americans in the West, particularly America; their identities precarious and their allegiances split. There is also a question of duty—to oneself, one’s beliefs, one’s homeland (ancestral, current, or adopted). Many of the people that wage violence seem to be missing something. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s forum posts as a teenager talk of loneliness and seeking comfort. How many people, like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or Umar Mutallab or Nidal Hasan, look for comfort in online lectures promising meaning through the salafi-jihadist interpretations of Islam? Where did Anwar Al-Awlaki find that spark?
I hope that the viewer can divine their own story of Anwar Al-Awlaki, terrorism, war, radicalization, and humanity from these bits of information I have linked together. I want the viewer to come to their own conclusions about Anwar Al-Awlaki, and why his life progressed the way he did. I want this project to complicate what is usually so uncomplicated—an extremist preacher calling for the deaths of innocents. But he was not always that person, and hopefully understanding the how his path changed, or understanding the lack of meaning that second-generation Americans might feel. What compels people to choose this path? How does someone start as the son of a college professor end up with Al Qaeda in Yemen?
Throughout my research, I found many sources taking what could be innocuous facts, and extrapolating them into pronouncements. For example, the attendance of some of the 9/11 hijackers at mosques where Al-Awlaki lectured or preached was taken to be collusion with 9/11 hijackers, and thus responsibility for the attack. But in reading FBI case files or emails or whatever else, there was never any proof of this. Just wild imagination. Ultimately, I want the viewer to come out with more questions, maybe a skepticism for the ways in which these complex figures are represented, and a desire to go out and learn more.
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Stein, Jesse Ian, "Anwar Al-Awlaki: A Life and Death in Images" (2015). Senior Projects Fall 2015. 17.
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