YouTube Blocks Top Terrorist Recruiter's Video Messages

'It's a watershed moment'

Anwar al-Awlaki / YouTube screenshot
November 13, 2017

YouTube has now implemented a policy change to block the vast majority of video messages on the site from one of the world's top terrorist recruiters amid growing pressure from governments and counterterrorism advocates.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric and leading English-language jihadist recruiter, has helped inspire a generation of terrorists, including the Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood gunman, and those behind the shootings in Orlando, Fla. and San Bernardino, Calif. A U.S. drone strike in 2011 killed Awlaki, who had ties to multiple hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when he was an al Qaeda leader in Yemen.

But Awlaki's online messages still help recruit terrorists to commit violence after his death, and many of his lectures and other videos were on YouTube, garnering many views, until recently.

YouTube is now blocking most of those videos with a combination of automatic and human reviewers, the New York Times reported Sunday.

A search for "Anwar al-Awlaki" on YouTube this fall found more than 70,000 videos, but that number has dropped to 18,600 since the new policy was put in place. Most of the videos still in YouTube's archive of Awlaki are news reports about his life and death and debates over his killing and work, among other related material.

The Times noted that a small number of clips of Awlaki speaking disappeared after the paper sent an inquiry about the site's policy change last week.

"It's a watershed moment on the question of whether we're going to allow the unchecked proliferation of cyberjihad," said Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of the Counter Extremism Project, a research organization that has previously called for Awlaki's recordings to be removed from the web. "You just don't want to make it easy for people to listen to a guy who wants to harm us."

YouTube's efforts to block Awlaki's online messages come as social media sites have come under scrutiny to go further to remove terrorist-connected accounts and jihadist content.