POLITICS
09/30/2011 05:05 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Radical cleric al-Awlaki's global influence worried Canadian security officials

OTTAWA - A senior federal cabinet minister breathed a sigh of relief upon word of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a nod to the late radical cleric's ability to inspire young westerners — including Canadians — to embrace Islamic extremism.

"This is good news not only for the United States and North America, this is making the world a safer place," said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

The death of the U.S.-born al-Awlaki in Yemen — possibly in an American missile strike — appeared to be the latest in a series of targeted killings of al-Qaida kingpins.

The charismatic lecturer spent his early childhood in the United States, moving with his family to Yemen before returning to Colorado to pursue university studies. He become an imam whose pronouncements and dealings drew the attention of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Members of a Toronto-area group implicated five years ago in terrorist plotting had watched one of al-Awlaki's videos at their makeshift training camp.

Canadian counter-terrorism officials were rattled by the articulate preacher's ability to connect with impressionable young western Muslims.

"In his speeches, interviews, and blog postings, Awlaki has called civilian aircraft legitimate targets and praised the actions of those who have carried out terror attacks," the RCMP noted in its web publication The Message of Radicalization.

The Mounties warned of real-time, online chat rooms that allowed messengers such as al-Awlaki to take their words beyond the mosque to virtual forums for radicalizing youth.

United Nations members including Canada took steps to freeze al-Awlaki's assets due to his involvement with al-Qaida's offshoot in the Arabian Peninsula.

At a Senate committee hearing last November, British security expert Tobias Feakin called al-Awlaki's growing influence from his perch in Yemen "obviously troubling," particularly in light of his high media profile, language abilities and ease with the Internet.

The media love a cult figure like al-Awlaki, said Feakin, a director with the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank.

"He speaks fluent English, so he can engage with Western Muslim youth," Feakin said. "It is difficult for the press not to leap to this guy immediately because he is an interesting character for them to deal with and for good reason. He is obviously an influential figure."

Just two months earlier, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews related his concerns about terrorist groups luring westerners to fight in foreign countries and the problem of homegrown extremism, citing the influence of al-Awlaki.

"In this country, it is the right of all Canadians to hold and discuss a wide range of beliefs," said Toews. That is what makes our country great, and disagreement and debate are the signs of a healthy democracy.

"But what we are seeing here is not about disagreement and debate. Our concern is with extremist ideologies that lead individuals to espouse or engage in violence. These individuals reject the values on which our country is based, and they must be stopped."