Awlaki’s Death a Delayed Counterterrorism Success
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.”