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Awlaki’s Death a Delayed Counterterrorism Success

1:25 PM, Sep 30, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Anwar al Awlaki has reportedly been killed in an airstrike in Yemen, bringing an end to the life of one of al Qaeda’s most effective recruiters. Awlaki had an especially strong appeal in the West, where an unknown (but surely significant) number of recruits joined al Qaeda’s jihad after viewing his sermons in English.

Anwar al Awlaki

Anwar al Awlaki

Awlaki was not merely an online instigator. Most notably, his dossier included ties to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, one of the enduring mysteries of 9/11 surrounds Awlaki’s precise role in the events leading up to that day.

A full accounting of Awlaki’s involvement in 9/11, as well as other attacks, has been obscured by numerous intelligence failures.

Awlaki first drew suspicion in June 1999, when the FBI launched a formal counterterrorism inquiry into his activities. Awlaki was an imam in San Diego at the time. According to the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI found that Awlaki “was in contact with a number of persons of investigative interest.” The identity of most of these individuals is redacted in the report, but one is described as the “subject of a Los Angeles investigation closely associated with Blind Sheikh al-Rahman.”

The Blind Sheikh, as he is widely known, was an early supporter of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda has consistently relied on Rahman’s teachings to justify its terror. Sheikh Rahman was convicted in a New York court for his role in inspiring the 1993 World Trade Center attack, as well as a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks.

In January 2000, while the FBI was investigating Awlaki, two of the future 9/11 hijackers arrived in California. The CIA learned that the two had attended a key al Qaeda summit in Malaysia, but failed to alert the FBI when they traveled to the U.S.

After spending some time in Los Angeles, the two hijackers made their way to Awlaki’s mosque in San Diego. The terrorist mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), would later admit during CIA interrogations that he was especially worried about these two. Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar were longtime followers of bin Laden, so their commitment was not in doubt. But the pair spoke little to no English and had no understanding of Western culture. Thus, KSM instructed Hazmi and Mihdhar, unlike the other 9/11 hijackers, to seek out assistance from members of the local Muslim community.

In reviewing KSM’s description of these events, the 9/11 Commission found he denied “that al Qaeda had any agents in Southern California.” KSM, who undoubtedly gave up valuable intelligence, but who also kept some secrets to himself, wanted the CIA to believe that al Qaeda had no support network in the U.S. The 9/11 Commission did not buy this story.

“We do not credit this denial,” the commission explained in its final report. The commission elaborated: “We believe it is unlikely that Hazmi and Mihdhar – neither of whom, in contrast to the Hamburg group [of hijackers], had any prior exposure to life in the West – would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival.”  

The commission had difficulty retracing Hazmi’s and Mihdhar’s movements during the two weeks after they arrived in California. This “may reflect al Qaeda tradecraft designed to protect the identity of anyone who may have assisted them during that period,” the commission surmised. At least several suspicious individuals assisted the pair. The most conspicuous was Awlaki. The Joint Inquiry found, based on FBI reports, that Awlaki became their “spiritual advisor” and held “closed-door meetings” with them.  

Approximately two months after Hazmi and Mihdhar met up with Awlaki, the FBI closed its investigation into the cleric. By March 2000, Awlaki had been “fully identified and does not meet the criterion for [further] investigation,” an FBI agent wrote in a memorandum. “The investigation was closed despite [Awlaki’s] contacts with other subjects of counterterrorism investigations and reports concerning [Awlaki’s] connection to suspect organizations,” the Joint Inquiry reported. When asked about this potentially egregious failure, the FBI reasoned that Awlaki “was a ‘spiritual leader’ to many in the community” and hundreds of other Muslims were his associates. The FBI failed to understand that not all of Awlaki’s associates need be extremists or terrorists for Awlaki himself to be up to no good.

In 2001, Awlaki moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where he became an imam at the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center. In the spring, Awlaki spoke at the funeral for a Muslim woman whose son served in the U.S. Army. That son, Nidal Malik Hasan, would be promoted to the rank of major in the years that followed despite his avowed jihadist beliefs. On November 5, 2009, Hasan killed 13 people and wounded dozens more during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan had contacted Awlaki repeatedly during the months leading up to the assault. Afterward, Awlaki praised the attack on his personal web site.

Awlaki was, by all accounts, a popular preacher at Dar al Hijrah. But Hasan was not the only member of his congregation who would achieve infamy.

Hazmi followed Awlaki to Virginia from San Diego. And yet another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour, joined Awlaki in Virginia as well. A member of Awlaki’s mosque assisted Hazmi and Hanjour, according to the Joint Inquiry, helping “them find an apartment in the area.” This same helper drove them, “along with two other hijackers, to Connecticut and then to Paterson, New Jersey.” During their two-night stay in Connecticut, they made a “total of 75 calls…to locate [an] apartment, flight schools, and car rental agencies for the hijackers.”

After 9/11, a phone number for Dar al Hijrah was found during a search of Ramzi al Binalshibh’s home in Germany. Binalshibh was the point man for the hijackers, coordinating their communications to and from more senior al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. 

Naturally, the FBI became suspicious of Awlaki once again in the days following 9/11. The more the FBI’s agents looked into Awlaki’s activities the more nefarious he appeared. Awlaki, however, had seized the initiative by launching a public relations campaign of his own. During interviews with the press, he claimed he was a moderate Muslim who did not approve of al Qaeda’s attack. He also successfully wooed some in the Pentagon, where he attended a luncheon as part of a Muslim outreach effort, and on Capitol Hill.

The FBI interviewed Awlaki several times, but apparently concluded there was not enough evidence to press charges. The FBI agent in charge of the Bureau’s investigation into 9/11 would later explain that “there’s a lot of smoke there” – referring to the obvious connections between Awlaki and the hijackers.

Awlaki did not admit any role in the plot to the FBI. The only other witnesses who would know for sure, the hijackers, were dead. When asked about Hazmi, the 9/11 hijacker who followed Awlaki from San Diego to Virginia, Awlaki claimed ignorance. According to the 9/11 Commission, Awlaki “said he did not recognize Hazmi’s name but did identify his picture.”

“Although [Awlaki] admitted meeting with Hazmi several times,” the commission reported, “he claimed not to remember any specifics of what they discussed.” Awlaki “described Hazmi as a soft-spoken Saudi student who used to appear at the mosque with a companion but who did not have a large circle of friends.”

Awlaki was allowed to leave the U.S. In 2002, however, he made a suspicious trip back into the country. As Catherine Herridge of Fox News has reported, an arrest warrant for passport fraud was issued for Awlaki. But the warrant was mysteriously dropped, allowing Awlaki to visit the U.S. and then leave once again.

In the years that followed, Awlaki was briefly imprisoned in Yemen – only to be freed. Awlaki subsequently built an online empire with followers around the world. His online sermons played a prominent role in radicalizing an untold number of jihadist recruits.

In late 2008, Awlaki was on the FBI’s radar once again. A Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) made up of FBI agents and other U.S. government personnel were investigating Awlaki when a number of emails to and from an Army serviceman – Major Nidal Malik Hasan – were discovered. Incredibly, the JTTF dismissed the importance of the emails.

According to an FBI statement, JTTF investigators “assessed that the content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center.” The FBI added: “Because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else derogatory was found, the JTTF concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning.”

That assessment turned out to be a devastating mistake. Months after Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Awlaki described Hasan as one of his “students.” Hasan had asked Awlaki about the permissibility of killing his fellow soldiers.

Another of his “students,” Awlaki explained, was Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate an underwear bomb on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009. Several intelligence failures allowed Abdulmutallab to board that flight.

As Awlaki’s recruits were waging jihad against the West, some commentators assumed that he was not operational – that he was merely a radical preacher. The legality of a U.S.-led counterstrike on Awlaki was even questioned in American courts by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Ironically, in the months leading up to the filing of that lawsuit, Awlaki was providing operational direction to a recruit in Britain who was planning an attack on airliners.

Undoubtedly, some recruits will be drawn to Awlaki’s violent message even after his death, as his online sermons will live on. But intelligence and counterterrorism officials finally caught up with the al Qaeda cleric – after a decade or more of failing to connect the dots.       

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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