Earlier today, ABC News reported that Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had reached out to al Qaeda associates prior to his attack. There were good reasons to speculate that one of these al Qaeda figures is Anwar al Awlaki -- an al Qaeda recruiter who acted as a "spiritual advisor" to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Awlaki preached at a mosque Hasan attended in 2001 and praised Hasan's attack on his web site this morning. It turns out that speculation was correct, according to the Associated Press:
A U.S. official says the Fort Hood shooting suspect reached out to communicate with a radical imam overseas who came under scrutiny in the past for possible links to terror groups. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the investigation, says Nidal Malik sent electronic communications to Anwar al Awlaki. Awlaki writes a blog which, among other things, denounces U.S. policies as anti-Muslim. The official says the messages were picked up by U.S. counterterrorism officials, but that an inquiry into the matter was shelved because the contacts were not deemed to suggest a threat. Investigators are trying to determine whether Nidal has any links to terror groups.
Now, the AP account is just a snippet -- a short, breaking news update. But if true, these few paragraphs contain incredibly noteworthy contents. First, Hasan's alleged tie to Awlaki is a major red flag. We aren't merely dealing with someone who became unhinged because of his line of work, as has been widely reported. The AP account downplays Awlaki's role in terrorism. But he does not just write a blog that "denounces U.S. policies as anti-Muslim." He is an active al Qaeda spiritual advisor and recruiter. Awlaki assisted at least three 9/11 hijackers here on U.S. soil before their day of terror. Second, this appears to be the third intelligence and law enforcement failure with respect to Awlaki. The FBI began investigating him in 1999 but shuttered the investigation in March 2000 because the Bureau determined he did not warrant further scrutiny. That was a mistake. In January 2000, two of the 9/11 hijackers met up with Awlaki in San Diego. Awlaki became their spiritual guide. Awlaki then moved to the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, VA. Two 9/11 hijackers (including one of the hijackers Awlaki had met with in San Diego) followed him there and received assistance from the mosque's members. The FBI investigated Awlaki again after the September 11 attacks and found there was a lot of "smoke," but told the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry that they did not have enough reasons to detain him. So, Awlaki relocated first to the UK and then Yemen. There, his al Qaeda role has only grown -- despite being briefly detained by the Yemeni government at the request of U.S. officials in 2006. But look at the last paragraph of the AP's account again. Despite the fact that Hasan had reached out to Awlaki, who had been investigated twice before because of his ties to al Qaeda, "an inquiry into the matter was shelved because the contacts were not deemed to suggest a threat." How can that possibly be? A member of the U.S. military with ostensible extremist beliefs reaches out to a prominent al Qaeda cleric and the U.S. government concluded there was nothing to worry about? Really? To give you a sense of how absurd this, the NEFA Foundation released a short dossier on Awlaki in February of this year. NEFA reported:
"Anwar al Awlaki (a.k.a. Anwar al Aulaqi), an American who lives in Yemen, who is regarded as an Islamic scholar, may be a key player in Al-Qaida's efforts to radicalize and incite American Muslims to commit terrorist acts."
NEFA went on to warn:
"Al Awlaki is a highly regarded, American-born, pro-Jihad ideologue with access to a young audience in the United States, even from his location in Yemen. There is no other comparable pro-Al-Qaida American figure who has such tremendous access to audiences or who has such credibility."
So NEFA, a small not-for-profit organization, was able to connect the dots on Awlaki. But the U.S. government (which spends billions of dollars a year tracking the terrorist threat) has apparently been unable to do so -- repeatedly. There were ample reasons to worry about any American -- let alone an American serviceman with access to military facilities -- reaching out to a prominent al Qaeda cleric. Yet, according to the AP, the U.S. government concluded those contacts "were not deemed to suggest a threat." If this latest AP account is right, then this is the third time that the U.S. government has had an intelligence failure with respect to Anwar al Awlaki. Congress should push forward with its investigation to ensure there isn't a fourth.
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