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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.

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