[Guest post by DRJ]
The New York Times profiles Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Muslim living in Yemen who reportedly counseled the Fort Hood shooter and Northwest Flight 253’s underwear bomber, as well as inspired last week’s NYC car bomber. The article explores whether al-Awlaki was a convert to extremism or an al Qaeda sleeper:
“There are two conventional narratives of Mr. Awlaki’s path to jihad. The first is his own: He was a nonviolent moderate until the United States attacked Muslims openly in Afghanistan and Iraq, covertly in Pakistan and Yemen, and even at home, by making targets of Muslims for raids and arrests. He merely followed the religious obligation to defend his faith, he said.
“What am I accused of?” he asks in a recent video bearing the imprint of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “Of calling for the truth? Of calling for jihad for the sake of Allah? Of calling to defend the causes of the Islamic nation?”
A contrasting version of Mr. Awlaki’s story, explored though never confirmed by the national Sept. 11 commission, maintains that he was a secret agent of Al Qaeda starting well before the attacks, when three of the hijackers turned up at his mosques. By this account, all that has changed since then is that Mr. Awlaki has stopped hiding his true views.”
The article recounts al-Awlaki’s evolution from early statements condemning terrorism to his current embrace of jihad:
“Jihad,” Mr. Awlaki said in a March statement, “is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.”
However, there are several examples that suggest al-Awlaki was radicalized well before 9/11 and may have had advance knowledge:
“One day in August 2001, Mr. Awlaki knocked at the door of Mr. Higgie, his neighbor, to say goodbye. He had moved the previous year to Virginia, becoming imam at the far bigger Dar al-Hijrah mosque, and he had returned to pick up a few things he had left behind.
As Mr. Higgie tells it, he told the imam to stop by if he was ever in the area — and got a strange response. “He said, ‘I don’t think you’ll be seeing me. I won’t be coming back to San Diego again. Later on you’ll find out why,’” Mr. Higgie said.
The next month, when Al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington, Mr. Higgie remembered the exchange and was shaken, convinced that his friendly neighbor had some advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Not convinced? There’s more:
“In fact, the F.B.I. had first taken an interest in Mr. Awlaki in 1999, concerned about brushes with militants that to this day remain difficult to interpret. In 1998 and 1999, he was a vice president of a small Islamic charity that an F.B.I. agent later testified was “a front organization to funnel money to terrorists.” He had been visited by Ziyad Khaleel, a Qaeda operative who purchased a battery for Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, as well as by an associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheik, who was serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.
Still more disturbing was Mr. Awlaki’s links to two future Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. They prayed at his San Diego mosque and were seen in long conferences with the cleric. Mr. Alhazmi would follow the imam to his new mosque in Virginia, and 9/11 investigators would call Mr. Awlaki Mr. Alhazmi’s “spiritual adviser.”
The F.B.I., whose agents interviewed Mr. Awlaki four times in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, concluded that his contacts with the hijackers and other radicals were random, the inevitable consequence of living in the small world of Islam in America. But records of the 9/11 commission at the National Archives make clear that not all investigators agreed.
One detective, whose name has been redacted, told the commission he believed Mr. Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.” An F.B.I. agent, also unidentified, said that “if anyone had knowledge of the plot, it would have been” the cleric, since “someone had to be in the U.S. and keep the hijackers spiritually focused.”
The 9/11 commission staff members themselves had sharp arguments about him. “Do I think he played a role in helping the hijackers here, knowing they were up to something?” said one staff member, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “Yes. Do I think he was sent here for that purpose? I have no evidence for it.”
The separate Congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks suspected that Mr. Awlaki might have been part of a support network for the hijackers, said Eleanor Hill, its director. “There’s no smoking gun. But we thought somebody ought to investigate him,” Ms. Hill said.”
Apparently there was some follow-up since al-Awlaki was imprisoned without charges in Yemen, but American officials did not object. The solitude kept him from inspiring jihadists directly but it gave him time to immerse himself in anti-Western rhetoric.
The article suggests al-Awlaki emerged from prison in 2007 more bitter and intent on planning, rather than just inspiring, jihad. He has undoubtedly followed through on that intent since earlier this year, President Obama authorized his assassination.