The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which bills itself as “the largest Islamic umbrella organization in North America,” is meeting in Washington, D.C., this weekend for its annual conference. One former ISNA speaker won’t be in attendance this year — al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011.
On September 1, 2001, just days before the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki gave an infamous lecture on “tolerance” at the 2001 ISNA convention, just as some of his disciples were preparing to launch the largest terrorist attack in American history.
One of his co-panelists in 2001, Hamza Yusuf, is one of this year’s keynote speakers. At the 1995 ISNA convention, Yusuf told the crowd that Judaism “is a most racist religion.”
Video of Awlaki’s lecture has never before been viewed by the public. PJ Media has obtained a video — watch it above in its entirety.
At the time of the speech, Awlaki was a media darling. The New York Times hailed him as part of “a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.” NPR contrasted Awlaki with Osama bin Laden, describing Awlaki as one of the “moderates who want to solve the problems without violence” and someone who could “build bridges between Islam and the West.” Awlaki was even featured in a November 2001 Washington Post Ramadan online chat.
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.
In a posthumously published autobiographical article appearing this past May in al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine Inspire, Awlaki recounts his own trip to Afghanistan in the early 1990s (several years after the Soviets had left) when he became enthralled with jihad and had planned to return to help fight with the mujahideen. He reconsidered after the Taliban had taken Kabul.
He also recounts how his San Diego mosque was born out of extremism:
The main mosque in San Deigo was Abu Bakr masjid or San Diego Islamic Center. However, a group of student from Saudi and the Gulf states were not happy with how things were run at the mosque. They perceived it as too liberal so they established a new mosque, Masjid al Ribat. I was invited to be its Imam.
We of course know about Awlaki’s involvement in recent years with terror attacks targeting the U.S., including his communication with Fort Hood killer Major Nidal Hasan and would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, among others.
But even prior to the 9/11 attacks and his appearance at the 2001 ISNA convention, there was plenty of evidence that Anwar al-Awlaki was no moderate, and that his speech on “tolerance” was a ruse to lure unsuspecting infidels to mistakenly embrace the cleric — an act the media and government officials fell for.
This should be remembered as ISNA conducts its conference yet again with many of the same cast of characters who pushed Awlaki, and as the media and government officials continue to embrace the group as a voice of moderation. Just as they embraced al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Ghulam Nabi Fai (the Pakistani spy who was national president of the Muslim Student Association and an ISNA shura council member and whose story I reported here at PJ Media just a few weeks ago).