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Context of 'February 27, 2008: Report: US Finally Decides Imam to 9/11 Hijackers Is Linked to Al-Qaeda'

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Anwar al-Awlaki.Anwar al-Awlaki. [Source: Public domain]The FBI conducts a counterterrorism inquiry into Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who will later be suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot. He serves as the “spiritual leader” to several of the hijackers (see March 2001 and After), and by 2008 US intelligence will determine he is linked to al-Qaeda (see February 27, 2008).
bullet The investigation is opened when it is learned he had probably been visited by a “procurement agent” for bin Laden, Ziyad Khaleel. Khaleel had helped buy a satellite phone for bin Laden; when he is arrested in December 1999 he reportedly tells the FBI crucial details about al-Qaeda operations in the US (see December 29, 1999).
bullet In early 2000 the FBI is aware when al-Awlaki is visited by an unnamed close associate of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 131 pdf file; Schmidt 2/27/2008)
bullet He also serves as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW), the US branch of a Yemeni charity founded by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni imam who the US will officially designate a terrorist in 2004. CSSW also has ties to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, considered one of the centers of al-Qaeda activity in Europe. The FBI begins investigating CSSW in 1999 after a Yemeni politician visits the US to solicit donations for the charity, and then visits Mahmoud Es Sayed, a known al-Qaeda figure at the Islamic Cultural Institute, on the same trip. (Burr and Collins 2006, pp. 243; Schmidt 2/27/2008)
bullet The FBI learns that al-Awlaki knows individuals from the suspect Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for Hamas. Sources allege that al-Awlaki has even more extremist connections.
But none of these links are considered strong enough for criminal charges, and the investigation is closed. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 517) Al-Awlaki is beginning to associate with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar shortly before the investigation ends. For instance, on February 4, one month before the FBI investigation is closed, al-Awlaki talks on the telephone four times with hijacker associate Omar al-Bayoumi. The 9/11 Commission will later speculate that these calls are related to Alhazmi and Almihdhar, since al-Bayoumi is helping them that day, and that Alhazmi or Almihdhar may even have been using al-Bayoumi’s phone at the time (see February 4, 2000). Al-Bayoumi had also been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation in 1999 (see September 1998-July 1999).

Future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar attend a San Diego mosque whose imam is Anwar al-Awlaki, and they have closed-door meetings with him. Al-Awlaki preaches at the Al-Ribat Al-Islami (also known as Rabat) mosque in La Mesa, a town right next to San Diego. After 9/11, the FBI will question al-Awlaki, and he will admit to meeting with Alhazmi several times, but say he does not remember what they discussed. He will not claim to remember Almihdhar at all. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 221) However, other accounts will suggest there is a much closer relationship, and with both hijackers. It is uncertain when they first meet, but a series of phone calls on February 4, 2000 connects the two hijackers, al-Awlaki, and a suspected Saudi spy named Omar al-Bayoumi (see February 4, 2000). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will later report that Alhazmi and Almihdhar “were closely affiliated with [al-Awlaki] who reportedly served as their spiritual adviser during their time in San Diego.… Several persons informed the FBI after September 11 that this imam had closed-door meetings in San Diego with Almihdhar, Alhazmi, and another individual, whom al-Bayoumi had asked to help the hijackers.” (US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)
Abdullah in Closed-Door Meetings? - This other person may be Mohdar Abdullah. Interviewed after 9/11, Abdullah will claim that al-Bayoumi specifically asked him “to be the individual to acclimate the hijackers to the United States, particularly San Diego, California.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 513) Furthermore, one witness will later claim to have met Alhazmi through both al-Awlaki and Abdullah. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 513) Abdullah may be told of the 9/11 plot in the spring of 2000 (see Early 2000), so presumably he could be a participant in secret meetings.
Investigator Confirms Closed-Door Meetings - Ray Fournier, a State Department official who will investigate al-Awlaki after 9/11, will say: “He was meeting with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar in the ante room off of the Rabat mosque. Just the three of them. It stands to reason that when three people get together and two of them end up being hijackers that end up in the Pentagon, they’re obviously discussing how they’re going to stay on track.… He’s absolving them of their sins. He’s making sure that their cover within Western culture is being maintained. He’s making sure they’re going to stay operational.” Fournier also claims that al-Awlaki was radicalized before the hijackers came to San Diego. (Sharma 6/10/2010)
Hijackers and Al-Awlaki Reunite in Virginia - Around August 2000, al-Awlaki resigns as imam and travels to unknown “various countries.” In early 2001, he will be appointed the imam to a much larger mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. (Copley News 10/1/2001) Alhazmi, Almihdhar, and fellow hijacker Hani Hanjour will move to Virginia and attend al-Awlaki’s mosque there (see March 2001 and After). By 2008, US intelligence will conclude that al-Awlaki is an al-Qaeda operative (see February 27, 2008).

The Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.The Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. [Source: Fox News]After living together in Phoenix since December 2000, 9/11 hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi move to Falls Church, Virginia, where imam Anwar al-Awlaki preaches. (Fainaru and Ibrahim 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004) They live only a few blocks from where two nephews of Osama bin Laden with ties to terrorism go to work (see February-September 11, 1996 and June 1, 2004). They continue to live there off and on until around August. They begin attending the Dar al Hijrah mosque. (Fainaru and Ibrahim 9/10/2002) When they and hijacker Khalid Almihdhar lived in San Diego in early 2000, they attended a mosque there led by al-Awlaki. This imam moved to Falls Church in January 2001, and now the hijackers attend his sermons at the Dar al Hijrah mosque. Some later suspect that al-Awlaki is part of the 9/11 plot because of their similar moves, and other reasons:
bullet The FBI says al-Awlaki had closed door meetings with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in 2000 while all three of them were living in San Diego (see February-August 2000). (US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)
bullet Police later find the phone number of al-Awlaki’s mosque when they search “would-be twentieth hijacker” Ramzi bin al-Shibh’s apartment in Germany. (US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)
bullet The FBI was investigating al-Awlaki for ties to Islamic militant groups in early 2000 (see June 1999-March 2000).
bullet A neighbor of al-Awlaki later claims that, in the first week of August 2001, al-Awlaki knocked on his door and told him he is leaving for Kuwait: “He came over before he left and told me that something very big was going to happen, and that he had to be out of the country when it happened” (see Early August 2001). (Isikoff and Klaidman 7/28/2003)
US officials will allow al-Awlaki to leave the US twice in 2002, but by 2008 they will conclude that he is linked to al-Qaeda attacks (see Early September 2006-December 2007 and February 27, 2008).

Ali al Timini.Ali al Timini. [Source: Fox News]Shortly after 9/11, the FBI begins to suspect that Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam to several of the 9/11 hijackers, may have had some connection to the 9/11 plot. They interview him repeatedly, but cannot find enough evidence to charge him, and he cannot be deported since he is a US citizen. Investigators discover he had been arrested more than once for soliciting prostitutes. They learn he is consorting with prostitutes in Virginia, and contemplate jailing him on an obscure law against transporting prostitutes across state lines. However, this plan collapses when he leaves the US unexpectedly in March 2002. (Ragavan 6/13/2004) But on October 10, 2002, he makes a surprise return to the US. His name is on a terrorist watch list and he is detained when his plane lands in New York City. Customs agents notify the FBI, but they are told that his name was taken off the watch list just the day before. He is released after only three hours. It has not been explained why he name was taken off the list. Throughout 2002, al-Awlaki is also the subject of an active Customs investigation into money laundering called Operation Greenquest, but he is not arrested for this either, or for the earlier contemplated prostitution charges. (Sperry 8/16/2003) At the time, the FBI is fighting Greenquest, and Customs officials will later accuse the FBI of sabotaging Greenquest investigations (see After March 20, 2002-Early 2003). While in the US, al-Awlaki visits the Fairfax, Virginia, home of Ali al Timimi, the leader of a nearby Islamic center. According to a later court filing, al-Awlaki attempts to get al Timimi to discuss the recruitment of young Muslims for militant causes, but al Timimi does not show interest. Al Timimi will later be sentenced to life in prison in the US for inciting young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. (Schmidt 2/27/2008) Al-Awlaki then leaves the US again. The FBI will later admit they were “very interested” in al-Awlaki and yet failed to stop him from leaving the country. One FBI source says, “We don’t know how he got out.” (Ragavan 6/13/2004) He will allegedly take part in other militant attacks (see September 15, 2006). By 2008, US intelligence will conclude that he is linked to al-Qaeda (see February 27, 2008).

Larry Mefford.Larry Mefford. [Source: James Kegley / San Francisco Chronicle]FBI officials maintain that 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar did not have anyone knowingly supporting their al-Qaeda activities when they lived in San Diego in 2000 and 2001.
FBI: Hijackers Had No Witting Support in San Diego - Larry Mefford, who was the FBI’s head of counterterrorism until November 2003, says: “Maybe there’s been something new. But as of the time of my retirement, there was no credible indication that anyone in Southern California helped the two terrorists with knowledge of the 9/11 plot.” And Richard Garcia, head of the FBI in Los Angeles, says, “If there was support, I think it was unwitting.” Garcia says that whatever support the hijackers received was from Muslims innocently helping other Muslims.
9/11 Commission Suggests Otherwise - However, the 9/11 Commission’s final report, published the same day as these comments, suggests otherwise. The report details extensive help the hijackers received, and strongly implies that at least some of their helpers, such as Mohdar Abdullah and Anwar al-Awlaki, were radical Islamists with a similar agenda as the hijackers. For instance, the report comments, “We believe it is unlikely that [Alhazmi] and Almihdhar… would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival.” (Krikorian and Reza 7/24/2004)
9/11 Congressional Inquiry Also Suggests Otherwise - The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry’s final report concluded that at least six 9/11 hijackers received “substantial assistance” from associates in the US, though it is “not known to what extent any of these contacts in the United States were aware of the plot.” The inquiry focused on associates in San Diego, including Abdullah and al-Awlaki (see July 24, 2003). (US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)
What about Abdullah and Al-Awlaki? - In late 2003, new evidence emerged that Abdullah might have had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but he was deported anyway, in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). In late 2004, several months after the comments by Mefford and Garcia, more evidence against him will emerge, causing the FBI to reopen its investigation into him (see September 2003-May 21, 2004). In 2008, US intelligence will finally conclude that al-Awlaki is an al-Qaeda operative (see February 27, 2008), and he will be connected to a number of attacks in the US.

In early September 2006, Anwar al-Awlaki is arrested in Yemen at the request of the US government. Al-Awlaki served as imam to several of the 9/11 hijackers when they lived in the US (see March 2001 and After). (Stewart and Chulov 11/4/2006) However, al-Awlaki is released in December 2007. The US was limited in how much it could pressure the government of Yemen to keep holding him, because he has never been formally charged with any crime. In a taped interview shortly after his release, he claims that while he was imprisoned in Yemen, he was interrogated by the FBI multiple times and asked about his dealings with the 9/11 hijackers. (Schmidt 2/27/2008) According to the New York Times, “by the end of 2007, American officials, some of whom were disturbed at the imprisonment without charges of a United States citizen, signaled that they no longer insisted on al-Awlaki’s incarceration, and he was released.” (Shane and Mekhennet 5/8/2010) By February 2008, just two months after US officials approved his release, US intelligence will conclude that al-Awlaki is linked to al-Qaeda (see February 27, 2008).

The Washington Post reports that US intelligence has finally determined that Anwar al-Awlaki is linked to al-Qaeda. Al-Awlaki was an imam at two different mosques attended by hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, and Hani Hanjour, and he has been suspected of assisting the 9/11 plot. An anonymous US counterterrorism official tells the Post, “There is good reason to believe Anwar al-Awlaki has been involved in very serious terrorist activities since leaving the United States [after 9/11], including plotting attacks against America and our allies.” However, the US apparently did not ask Yemen to extradite him when he was arrested there in 2006, because there was no pending legal case against him. He continues to reside in Yemen and apparently still has not been charged with any crime. (Schmidt 2/27/2008) In December 2007, just two months before this article, the US approved the release of al-Awlaki in Yemen, apparently because there still was no pending legal case against him (see Early September 2006-December 2007). He also does not appear to be on any public wanted list.

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