The Blog

U.S. Intelligence Community: Al Qaeda Cleric May Be Terrorist

10:58 AM, Dec 31, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

CBS news correspondent Bob Orr spoke with Harry Smith on Wednesday. Here is part of their exchange (emphasis added):

Smith: We are starting to learn a lot more about this radical imam, Awlaki, who is actually born in the United States. Tell us.



Orr: It's actually frightening, Harry. U.S. officials now, almost to a man, are becoming increasingly more convinced that Anwar Al-Awlaki is more than a radical cleric. The sources we've talked to say he's a coordinator, even a facilitator, or talent recruiter if you will, for al Qaeda and all of its franchises. 



The FBI will not say if Anwar al-Awlaki and the suspect in the Detroit case, Abdulmutallab, ever met face-to-face in Yemen, but in the months prior to the attempted bombing … the two men were communicating. Sources say at a minimum, Awlaki was providing spiritual support and now investigators are pressing hard to know if he played a bigger role in perhaps introducing the suspect to terrorists. Meanwhile Awlaki himself is a marked man. Sources say he was in fact one of the targets of a Yemeni-led airstrike carried out just before Christmas. Apparently he survived.

Much of the public commentary on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed Christmas Day attack has focused on the intelligence failures that allowed him to get on a plane bound for Detroit with explosives. There were prior warnings from his father, a history of extremism, and warnings that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was about to deploy a "Nigerian" in an attack, among other bits of intelligence. Put it all together and it certainly looks like a blatant intelligence failure. Many are wondering why Abdulmutallab was not on a no-fly list.
 
But the failure to stop Abdulmutallab from getting on a plane is a tactical failure that is symptomatic of much deeper, and more troubling, strategic failures -- including the basic failure to identify our enemies and the ideology that compels them to kill Americans.
 
How is it that just now "U.S. officials…are becoming increasingly more convinced that Anwar al Awlaki is more than a radical cleric?"
 
In 1999, Awlaki was first investigated by the FBI because of his ties to known al Qaeda operatives and their allies, including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (aka the "Blind Sheikh"). That investigation was closed in 2000, however, after the FBI agent in charge found that Awlaki did not warrant further scrutiny. That was an obvious mistake as in early 2000 (before the investigation was closed) Awlaki began hosting Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi in San Diego. Those two would become hijackers on September 11.

Now, al Mihdhar and al Hazmi attended an important al Qaeda planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur just before they got on a plane headed for California. The CIA and others knew that the attendees of that meeting were, in fact, al Qaeda agents. In short order the two hooked up with Awlaki, who became their "spiritual advisor," according to Congress's Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks.
 
Are we supposed to believe that was just a coincidence? They just happened to meet up with Awlaki shortly after arriving on U.S. soil? The CIA knew that al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were al Qaeda terrorists before they ever reached California, but Awlaki somehow did not? (Keep in mind that al Qaeda tries its best to maintain operational security in its terrorist plots and its terrorists don't let just anyone into their circle.)
 
The CIA lost track of al Mihdhar and al Hazmi after they left the Kuala Lumpur meeting. The Agency didn't tell the FBI, for example, that they were in the U.S. until it was too late.
 
That was a tactical failure, much like the failure to appropriately track and stop Abdulmutullab before he got on an airliner with an al Qaeda-patented explosive. But the strategic failure here was that we did not fully understand who was assisting al Mihdhar and al Hazmi (and probably two other hijackers in Virginia after Awlaki relocated from San Diego), as they got ready to launch their attack in the first place.
 
That would be Anwar al Awlaki.
 
As a result, the FBI couldn't put together a case against Awlaki based on terrorism charges even after September 11, 2001. ABC News has reported that authorities wanted to detain Awlaki on charges related to his fraudulent passport. This was intended to keep Awlaki in the country because he was a suspicious character, but that effort failed after officials decided to drop even those charges. But, what is striking is that the FBI apparently could not put together a case against Awlaki based on the assistance he provided al Qaeda's suicide hijackers.
 
So, Awlaki walked in 2002. He went on to run a major online propaganda engine that convinced untold numbers of recruits to fight American and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also among those who were drawn to Awlaki's propaganda were the members of a terrorist cell in Toronto and the plotters who were detained prior to their attack on Fort Dix in New Jersey.
 
Then, once again, Awlaki became the personal "spiritual advisor" for a terrorist: Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter. Evidence continues to mount that Awlaki helped guide Hasan along his dark path.
 
Now we learn that Awlaki "provided spiritual support" to Abdulmutallab. Let's be clear on what "spiritual support" from Awlaki really entails: jihadist indoctrination on behalf of al Qaeda.
 
You would think that the U.S. government would have learned after the conviction of the Blind Sheikh for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack  and a follow-on plot that "providing spiritual support" really means "providing a religious sanction to kill." After all, the Blind Sheikh was the "spiritual advisor" for the 1993 WTC plotters. Jihadists, you see, need to be convinced that what they are about to do is religiously justified. That's why they rely on fatwas (religious edicts) to justify their terrorism. And that's why the Blind Sheikh and Anwar al Awlaki are so dangerous -- they have the credentials to convince others that massacring innocents is not only justifiable but necessary.
 
This should be obvious by now, but as Andy McCarthy explains in his masterful book, "Willful Blindness," there were many who chose not to see it when it came to the Blind Sheikh and his cohorts. And there are many who still refuse to see it today.
 
U.S. intelligence officials are reportedly debating whether or not Awlaki is playing a more "operational" role in al Qaeda's terrorism -- i.e. playing a more direct role in planning specific attacks. Maybe Awlaki is now getting more involved in the nitty-gritty details. But what could be more "operational" than convincing men to blow themselves up in the name of a virulent ideology?
 
Awlaki is not just some radical preacher who wildly spews invective. He has personally assisted jihadists on their path to committing terrorist attacks. Awlaki is powerful al Qaeda recruiter indeed.
 
Moreover, Awlaki does not need to sew a bomb in Abdulmutallab's underwear or load Maj. Hasan's gun or show two hijackers how to take over a plane. The services he provides al Qaeda are far more important.