The recognition of Awlaki wasn’t exclusive to the media. He was also leading prayers for congressional Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill. Post-9/11, he was lecturing on Islam inside the executive dining room of the Pentagon, still scarred from the al-Qaeda hijackers that had crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into it.
He was, according to the Wall Street Journal, even one of the instructors that taught prospective Muslim chaplains for the U.S. military.
Despite those media and government accolades and recognition, the assessment that Anwar al-Awlaki was a bridge of moderation between Islam, buttressed by his lectures on “tolerance,” was a facade. The belief that he was a peaceful moderate is part of what terrorism researcher J.M. Berger has dubbed “the myth of Anwar al-Awlaki.” In fact, Awlaki’s extremism — notwithstanding his lectures on “tolerance” — was more than evident prior to 9/11 and his speech at ISNA.
A week after he gave that speech and just two days before 9/11, Awlaki was speaking at UC Irvine – with many of the same leaders speaking at the ISNA convention this weekend — at a fundraiser for cop-killer and ISNA shura council member Jamil al-Amin. Awlaki flew back to Washington, D.C., on the same morning that his three disciples boarded American Airlines Flight 77.
Two days after 9/11, Awlaki described the terrorist attack as an “accident” while talking to a local television station in front of the gates of his Falls Church, Virginia mosque, Dar al-Hijrah (whose extensive terror ties I have noted previously).
And prior to his February 2002 lecture on Islam in the executive dining room of the Pentagon, he had been interviewed by the FBI on four separate occasions for his assistance of and secret meetings with three of the hijackers, who had followed Awlaki from San Diego to Northern Virginia. Just days after that Pentagon event, Awlaki quietly slipped out of the country and moved to the UK.
Not long after he left the U.S., Awlaki was part of the congressional investigation into the 9/11 attacks. The head of that inquiry, Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), has publicly said: “There was a high probability that they (the hijackers) had shared with Awlaki what they were planning to do.”
A pre-9/11 investigation by the FBI also found that Awlaki had been visited at his San Diego mosque by a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a designated terror group, and by a disciple of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, now serving a life sentence in federal prison. The FBI closed that case because of a lack of evidence.
When Awlaki returned briefly to the U.S. in October 2002 (his last trip to the U.S.), he reportedly met with fellow D.C.-area imam Ali al-Tamimi and inquired about recruiting young Muslims for “violent jihad.” Al-Tamimi is currently serving a life sentence. Questions are still being raised about how Awlaki was let back into the country when his name appeared on an early version of the terror watch list and an active federal warrant was out for his arrest.
In Awlaki’s sermons prior to 9/11, recorded mainly in the late 1990s when he was serving a mosque in San Diego, he turned repeatedly to extremist topics, according to an extensive analysis by the Investigative Project on Terrorism. The topics included “the evil that surrounds Muslims in the West; arguments that U.S. foreign and domestic policy are controlled by ‘the strong Jewish lobbyists;’ and most commonly, his disdain of Jews, whom he terms ‘the enemy from Day 1 to the Day of Judgment.’”
Awlaki had arrived in San Diego from Denver, where he had also served as an imam. According to the New York Times, Awlaki left after he was confronted by an elder in the mosque about his attempts to recruit a Saudi student to join the jihad in Chechnya.