The Magazine

Connecting the Dots

The shooting at Fort Hood was no 'mystery.' It was an act of terrorism waiting to happen.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The Dar al Hijrah mosque describes itself as "one of the largest and most diverse Islamic Centers in the nation." It hosts hundreds of Muslims for prayers every Friday. At the time of Nora's funeral, a charismatic imam named Anwar al Awlaki was leading the weekly proceedings. Born in America and fluent in English, he was especially effective in dealing with the mosque's English-speaking membership. "Our community needed an imam who could speak English," said Dar al Hijrah's current imam, Johari Abdul-Malik, in a recent interview with PBS. "Not like many masjid, who have an imam who is from the old guard--he speaks broken English, if he speaks English at all--but someone who could convey that message with the full force of faith. [Awlaki] was that person. And he delivered that message dutifully."

According to ABC News, Awlaki preached at Nora's funeral. And Hasan, according to various reports, heard him many other times thereafter. It is not clear whether Hasan and Awlaki forged a close relationship when they worshipped together in Northern Virginia, but Hasan did directly seek Awlaki's counsel again.

Awlaki preached at Dar al Hijrah until April 2002 when he suddenly left the United States for his ancestral home in Yemen. Abdul-Malik, the mosque's current imam, told PBS that Awlaki complained about the "climate" in the United States. Awlaki told him: "You can't really do your work, because it's always anti-terrorism, investigating this. The FBI wants to talk to you."

But the FBI had a good reason for investigating Awlaki: He played a role in the biggest intelligence failure in American history.

The FBI first took notice of Awlaki in June 1999 when his contacts with al Qaeda terrorists, including one who had procured a satellite phone for Osama bin Laden, raised red flags. But after a brief investigation, lasting until March 2000, the FBI determined that the facts did not warrant further inquiry.

Prior to joining Dar al Hijrah, Awlaki was an imam in San Diego. In January 2000, he welcomed two al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, into his community. They had been identified by U.S. intelligence not just as al Qaeda operatives but as attendees of a key terrorist summit in Kuala Lumpur. (U.S. authorities would later learn that both the USS Cole bombing and the September 11 attacks were discussed at the meeting.) Although the U.S. government knew al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were al Qaeda operatives, the intelligence and law enforcement community lost track of them when they entered the United States.

They were with Awlaki. And, when he moved from California to Northern Virginia in January 2001, they--as well as a third September 11 hijacker named Hani Hanjour--went with him. By the time a serious search for them got underway it was too late. Al Hazmi, al Mihdhar, and Hanjour all took part in September 11 attacks.

The FBI would later determine that al Mihdhar and al Hazmi "were closely affiliated" with Awlaki in San Diego. According to the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks, Awlaki served as "their spiritual advisor." The Joint Inquiry also identified an unnamed member of the Dar al Hijrah congregation who helped al Hazmi and Hanjour find an apartment. After they had settled into the Falls Church area, this same follower drove them and two other future 9/11 hijackers to Connecticut and then New Jersey. "From the hotel in Connecticut where they stayed for two nights," the Joint Inquiry found, "a total of 75 calls were made to locate apartment[s], flight schools, and car rental agencies for the hijackers." Thus, Awlaki and a member of his congregation provided crucial assistance to the 9/11 hijackers as they planned their day of terror. There are further links between Awlaki and the attacks.

After 9/11, when authorities searched the German residence of Ramzi Binalshibh, the key link between the deployed hijackers in the United States and top al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, counterterrorism officials found the phone number for Dar al Hijrah. And the Joint Inquiry found that after would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui and his roommate were arrested in August 2001, one of Awlaki's "close associates" attempted to post bail for Moussaoui's roommate.

The failure to track known al Qaeda operatives Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi after they entered the United States stands out as one of the most noteworthy failures in the run-up to 9/11. Anwar al Awlaki played a role in making that failure possible. He took some of the hijackers under his wing and aided them in blending into American society. Yet, the FBI decided that Awlaki, who is an American citizen, should not be arrested. They let him leave the country in 2002. The Bureau told Congress that while "there's a lot of smoke" surrounding Awlaki, there wasn't enough to hold him. So, Awlaki fled to Yemen--and a better "climate" for his work.