Public Enemy #1
A former San Diegan, now arguably the world's most dangerous threat to the United States, could and should have been captured.
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In recent years, Awlaki’s hate-filled sermons and recordings have been found on the computers of terrorist suspects in the United States, Canada and Britain. U.S. officials insist his radical phase didn’t develop until he left Britain for Yemen, where he was imprisoned for a short time in 2006-2007 for his apparent connections to an al-Qaida cell in Yemen (FBI agents interviewed Awlaki in prison in September 2007, but he was released three months later). But if his radical phase didn’t commence until his imprisonment, why was Awlaki secretly advising the 9/11 hijackers in the months leading up to the worst attack in American history? Why did he lie about his knowledge of the hijackers? And what about his close connections to so many other terrorists, which the bureau knew about as far back as the late 1990s?
Terrorists could not have pulled off such an ambitious offensive without substantial financial and logistical support, here and abroad. However, countless intelligence leads that might have helped solve this mystery appear to have been underinvestigated or completely overlooked by the FBI, particularly in San Diego.
Most San Diegans know about Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Hani Hanjoor, the three terrorists who lived here, and we are finally learning more about Awlaki. But much less is known about Saad Al-Habeeb, Omar Al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, three recondite Saudi nationals who lived in or visited San Diego and had links both to the terrorists and to the Saudi government. Al-Bayoumi also had links to Awlaki, federal officials later admitted.
During his week-long visit to San Diego, Al-Habeeb purchased a building in El Cajon with a $450,000 cashier’s check for use as a mosque and community center for San Diego’s Kurd Muslims. This gift was given on the condition that another Saudi, Al-Bayoumi — a sociable but enigmatic man who spent a lot of time at the Islamic center in Clairemont, was close friends with the hijackers and was widely considered to be a Saudi government agent — be set up as the building’s maintenance manager. Al-Bayoumi also was to be given a private office at the mosque, with a phone and a computer, according to leaders of the Kurd mosque, whom I interviewed at the time, but he was never seen in that building. Not once.
Osama Basnan, another San Diego Saudi who was a close friend of the hijackers as well as Al-Bayoumi, claims to have received monthly checks for several years totaling as much as $73,000 from the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and his wife, Princess Haifa Faisal. Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, apparently needed thyroid surgery. She then signed many of the checks over to Basnan’s friend, Manal Bajadr, who is Al-Bayoumi’s wife.
During the time he lived here, Basnan also reported his passport stolen in Houston, Texas — which confirmed that Basnan was in that city the same day Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush. Basnan and his wife, Dweikat, admitted they had used false immigration documents to stay in the United States, and were arrested. At a gathering in San Diego, Basnan reportedly called 9/11 “a wonderful, glorious day” and celebrated the hijackers’ “heroism.” Despite all this, Basnan was ultimately allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and Dweikat was deported to Jordan.
Meantime, Awlaki, the onetime purportedly moderate San Diego imam, is presumably still communicating with and encouraging more would-be terrorists across the globe. He has become arguably the most dangerous man in the world and has made it clear that he wants more Americans to die.
“I pray that Allah destroys America,” he recently said on a video that has been watched worldwide on YouTube. “I will never surrender to America. If the Americans want me, let them come look for me. God is the protector.”
Jamie Reno was Newsweek’s San Diego correspondent for 17 years. He’s now a military reporter and blogger for KPBS and NPR.