Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki described both the Fort Hood Shooter and the Christmas Day bomber as his “students” in a tape released this weekend, according to press reports. This is not surprising – the evidence tying Awlaki to both terrorists has continued to mount. But Awlaki’s comments highlight, once again, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s many failures in investigating the al Qaeda cleric. The Obama administration should declassify as much information about Awlaki’s ties to these attacks (as well as previous ones) as possible, because American authorities have repeatedly failed to detect Awlaki’s hand until it was too late. The public has a right to see the evidentiary threads that were missed -- in particular, Awlaki’s emails with Major Nidal Malik Hasan.
With respect to Major Hasan, Reuters quotes Awlaki as saying: “Nidal was my student ... I'm proud of Nidal Hasan and this was a heroic act.”
"Who can object to what he did? He killed soldiers on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan," Awlaki added. In addition to justifying attacks on American civilians, and calling on Muslim soldiers to follow in Hasan’s footsteps, Awlaki explicitly threatened more attacks like the Fort Hood shooting.
“If the situation remains we will see new Nidal Hasans appearing,” Awlaki warned. “These American soldiers on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq, we will kill them.”
In the months leading up to November 5, 2009, Awlaki emailed back and forth with Hasan. After the fact, Awlaki conceded that Hasan “was asking about killing American soldiers and officers. [He asked] whether this is a religiously legitimate act or not.” Awlaki also taunted authorities for not uncovering Hasan’s plot beforehand.
“I wondered how the American security agencies, who claim to be able to read car license plate numbers from space, everywhere in the world, I wondered how [they did not reveal this],” Awlaki gloated.
Incredibly, the FBI did know that Hasan and Awlaki were emailing months before 13 Americans were killed at Fort Hood. But the FBI initially described the emails as “benign” and argued that they were consistent with Hasan’s research into the deleterious effects of combat on American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is sheer nonsense, as Awlaki is all for such effects and there is no legitimate reason for a major in the U.S. Army to be in contact with Awlaki. The FBI’s dismissive “analysis” of the emails is also inconsistent with how Awlaki himself describes his relationship with Hasan.
In fact, the FBI has bungled its investigation into Awlaki’s activities repeatedly for more than a decade. Time and again Awlaki has offered spiritual “advice” to al Qaeda’s terrorists, including some of the 9/11 hijackers. Time and again American authorities have failed to connect the dots.
In the interest of exposing this litany of failures so it doesn’t happen again, and transparency in general, the Obama administration should declassify and release Awlaki’s emails with Hasan.
The same goes for any intelligence on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ties to Awlaki. Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound plane wearing an underwear bomb, even though there were plenty of dots authorities should have connected on him beforehand. Abdulmutallab should never have made it on board the airliner. The Senate Intelligence Committee has, to its credit, issued a scathing report detailing many of the failures leading up to Christmas Day 2009. But that same report said nothing about Awlaki.
Awlaki reportedly blessed Abdulmutallab’s operation in Yemen, where Awlaki met with the young al Qaeda recruit. In his appearance this weekend, Awlaki says he is disappointed that the civilians on board Flight 253 were not killed. “Those who might be killed in a plane are merely a drop of water in a sea,” Awlaki says.
The Obama administration has rightly decided to target Awlaki inside Yemen, authorizing military and intelligence officials to kill the cleric if given the opportunity. But the administration should also declassify and release Awlaki’s emails with the Fort Hood Shooter, as well as any other threads of evidence that have been missed. Those bits of intelligence that are still highly sensitive because they deal with current operations can be redacted.
But the American people deserve to see the evidence that their counterterrorism officials have repeatedly failed to understand.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.