Enabling a Committed Jihadist
Prior to Awlaki’s killing last year, he was a key al Qaeda operative — a committed jihadist who, as an American citizen and gifted orator, could easily operate in the U.S. and influence young Western Muslims. Ms. Herridge reports that one study ties Awlaki to some 26 terrorism cases. For example, he was in regular contact for years with the Fort Hood jihadist, Nidal Hasan, before the latter killed 13 American soldiers and wounded dozens more in November 2009. Awlaki is also believed to have been complicit in the unsuccessful attempt by Umar Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane over Detroit just a month later, on Christmas Day. Much of this mayhem could have been prevented if the government had acted to stop Awlaki when opportunities to do so presented themselves in aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
In March 2002, seven months before Awlaki was “un-arrested” at JFK airport, he was allowed to flee the country. He was a hot number at the time — and he knew it. Awlaki had been involved with several of the suicide-hijackers who had killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. FBI agents had grilled him repeatedly in the days after the attack, and, palpably, he had dissembled in describing his contacts with the terrorists. Yet no effort was made to stop him from going to Yemen.
The new Fox News report explains that the Justice Department learned sometime in 2002 that Awlaki was planning to return to the U.S. from Yemen. How the government knew this has not been revealed. We can recall, however, that the 9/11 attacks resulted in a significant stepping up of surveillance efforts, including NSA eavesdropping on terrorist communications that crossed our national boundaries. Given that Awlaki was a suspect in the most resource-intensive investigation ever conducted by the federal government, and in light of his inclusion on terrorist watch-lists, it is unsurprising that the government was alert to his movements.
What is surprising — shocking, actually — is that, as Awlaki was making his way from Riyadh to New York that October, the Justice Department was actually arranging to facilitate his movements, rather than resolving to stop him.
That mindset is hard to fathom when one considers what was known of Awlaki’s background at the time. His suspected terror ties significantly predated 9/11. Though born in New Mexico, he was raised in Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home and long a jihadist hotbed. Awlaki later relocated to the U.S., serving for years, in various American mosques, as an imam steeped in Islamic supremacist ideology.
In the late Nineties, he worked for an ostensible Islamic charity that the government later described as a “front organization … used to support al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.” Moreover, as Susan Schmidt has reported for the Washington Post, Awlaki edged onto the FBI’s radar screen in 1999, when the Bureau developed information that he had been visited by both a publicly unidentified associate of Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh,” sentenced to life-imprisonment in 1996 on terrorism charges), and an al Qaeda “procurement agent” who had obtained a satellite phone for bin Laden’s use in Afghanistan. The investigation was closed as to Awlaki due to what the government describes as a lack of evidence.