In August 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the U.S. government on behalf of al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. The two organizations questioned the government’s right to put Awlaki on a “kill list” and argued that the “government’s refusal to disclose the standard by which it determines to target U.S. citizens for death independently violates the Constitution.” The complaint continued:
U.S. citizens have a right to know what conduct may subject them to execution at the hands of their own government. Due process requires, at a minimum, that citizens be put on notice of what may cause them to be put to death by the state.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is obvious why American officials would have Awlaki killed (he has been connected to numerous terrorist attacks either directly or as an inspiration), some played along with the CCR and ACLU in questioning Awlaki’s importance as a terrorist target.
The New York Times, for example, published an op-ed by Gregory Johnsen (“A False Target in Yemen”), who claimed that Awlaki “is hardly significant in terms of American security” and a “minor figure in Al Qaeda.” The Obama administration’s decision to make “a big deal of him now is backfiring” by giving him more attention than he deserved, Johnsen argued. And “no one should remain under the mistaken assumption that killing Mr. Awlaki will somehow make us safer. “
In December 2010, a D.C. district judge dismissed the lawsuit. The CCR and ACLU decided not to fight the judge’s ruling, letting this year’s deadline for an appeal go by with little fanfare.
Now, thanks to a terror conviction in the U.K, we know what Awlaki was doing in the months leading up to the lawsuit. Naturally, the al Qaeda cleric was plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. and U.K.
Rajib Karim, a British Airways computer expert who was born in Bangladesh, was convicted of terrorism-related charges on Monday. Karim was convicted, in part, for giving Awlaki information that could be used to plan terrorist attacks. According to the Daily Mail (U.K.), Karim had also “previously admitted five charges relating to terrorist fundraising and offering himself as a jihadi fighter to take on U.K. and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
The most remarkable details about Karim’s terror plotting have emerged from computer files that were recovered from his laptop, but not without great effort. The U.K. press is reporting that Karim used some of the “most sophisticated” encryption tools authorities there have ever seen to mask his communications with various nefarious personalities, including Awlaki. The Daily Mail reports that investigators found that Karim used a “Russian doll system,” which “hid his terrorist plotting behind at least eight layers of disguise and encryption.”
Rajib Karim’s brother, Tehzeeb, met with Awlaki in Yemen in December 2009 – the same month that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, who Awlaki prepared for his day of terror, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Tehzeeb told Awlaki about his brother and the two started emailing each other almost immediately. Once authorities picked through the various layers of security Karim had set up on his computer, they found his damning emails with Awlaki.
On January 25, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim, telling him that “depending on what your role is and the amount of information you can get your hands on, you might be able to provide us with critical and urgent information and may be able to play a crucial role for the ummah...” Awlaki continued (emphasis added):
I was pleased when your brother conveyed from you salaams to myself and was excited by hearing your profession. I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems, what procedures would travellers from the newly listed countries have to go through, what procedures would a person on a watch list have to go through?
Karim sent an email to Awlaki, who is addressed as the “prof,” on January 29, 2010. Karim complained about having to live “with the kuffar” (disbelievers) and said he “desperately” wanted to leave. As for his specific knowledge of the airline industry, Karim explained:
I have knowledge about the key people in BA [British Airways] starting from the top management and the key people in BA IT department. I also have knowledge about key IT hardware locations, which if targeted can bring huge disruption to flights and cause BA a major financial loss ... but this would be at the risk of exposing myself as I will have to do that with my own login ID...
I personally know two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practising brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen and do not slander them. They are of the type who would help with money and moral support but I am not sure if they are at the stage to sacrifice with their lives.
On February 13, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim. Awlaki probed Karim’s ability to get a bomb or suicide bomber on board a plane headed for the U.S. and also encouraged Karim to take a job on a flight crew. Awlaki wrote (emphasis added):
Our highest priority is the US. Anything there, even if on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US? If that is not possible, then what ideas do you have that could be set up for the uk?
…You should definitely take the [cabin crew] opportunity, the information you could get would be very useful.
Karim emailed his brother on February 15, 2010: “If it's not a good idea to visit you guys, then I intend to visit BD or USA. If I visit USA, I can check out what their security process is like.”
Karim also replied to Awlaki on February 15, saying he was willing to work on a U.S.-focused plot and also suggesting that they launch a cyber attack on British Airways. Karim wrote Awlaki (emphasis added):
I have started working on the bros I mentioned on the last letter without mentioning you directly. Alhamdulillah the bros responded better than I expected...
If full damage can be inflicted that would mean cabin crew would be stranded in different parts of the world, planes will be grounded and it will be total chaos.
Like you say, I also agree that US is a better target than UK, but I do not know much about US. I can work with the bros to find out the possibilities of shipping a package to a US-bound plane.
The CCR and ACLU, as well as others, pretended throughout the course of the ill-fated lawsuit that Awlaki’s ties to terrorist operations were questionable. As Awlaki’s email exchanges with a convicted terrorist show, however, the cleric is clearly involved in potting terrorist attacks. Awlaki queried Karim about weaknesses in airline security and insisted, “Our highest priority is the US.” Awlaki wrote these words just months before the CCR and ACLU tried to get a court to stop the U.S. government from attempting to kill Awlaki.
Although these emails were not available to the public at the time the lawsuit was filed, they are hardly surprising. Awlaki's emails with Karim are by no means the only evidence the U.S. and U.K. have amassed against Awlaki.
U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly said that Awlaki has played an increasingly “operational” role inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In a declaration submitted to the court in connection with the CCR/ACLU lawsuit, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that Awlaki was involved in “preparing” Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab for his attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. After Abdulmutallab swore allegiance to the emir of AQAP, Clapper reported, he “received instructions from [Awlaki]” shortly thereafter “to detonate an explosive device aboard a U.S. airplane over U.S. airspace.”
This is all too believable since Awlaki’s emails with Karim show that he was exploring the same type of operation with the British Airways worker just weeks after Abdulmutallab failed to kill hundreds of people. By Awlaki’s own admission, Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.”
And given that excerpts of Awlaki’s emails with Karim have now been made public in the U.K., it is time that excerpts of the al Qaeda cleric’s emails with his other “students” are made public in the U.S.
In the months leading up to the Fort Hood shooting, Awlaki repeatedly corresponded by email with Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Those emails were dismissed by the FBI as unimportant prior to November 5, 2009, when Hasan shot and killed 13 people and wounded 29 others.
If the CCR and ACLU are truly interested in promoting government transparency, then they should demand to see the contents of Awlaki’s emails with Major Hasan. Then again, like Awlaki’s emails with Karim, those emails likely cut against the myth that Awlaki is an unimportant and unworthy target in the fight against terrorism too.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.