"Is he a doctor? I don't think I know him."
Americans may regard the U.S.-born cleric with the beard and hard stare as a new face of terror, but when you mention Awlaki in the Yemeni capital, it's as if you've asked someone to solve a complicated bit of arithmetic. Eyes narrow, faces scrunch.
"I don't know who he is. I work all day and don't watch a lot of TV," said Ibrahim Abdulrab, standing over an ironing board with a pile of shirts at his feet.
The radical preacher is on the CIA's assassination list and is believed to be hiding with Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen's mountainous tribal lands. He is implicated in a number of plots, including inspiring a U.S. Army psychiatrist who is charged with killing 13 people a year ago at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the recent attempt to blow up aircraft with packages of concealed explosives.
Internet videos, website manifestos and pundit rhetoric are splicing Awlaki into the American consciousness. But he is largely unknown here or referred to as an apparition hiding in a distant crevice. Even his Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is scoffed at by many as an invention, a ploy by Washington and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to advance larger agendas.
Rumors dart like sparrows across this city, flitting through conversations, sermons and newsrooms. Perceptions are shaped by conjecture and thinly drawn asides. They highlight the ideological and emotional divides between the U.S. and the Middle East on matters ranging from drone strikes in Pakistan to the elusive characters and strange blueprints of global terrorism.
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