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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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A decade ago, Anwar al-Awlaki was a skinny, bespectacled, soft-spoken, nerdy academic and cleric at a small La Mesa mosque. Described as a moderate Muslim with a good sense of humor who was fluent in both English and Arabic, he liked to fish, play soccer and go paintballing with the teens at the mosque. He neither looked nor acted like a radical and was quick to condemn the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Today, the U.S.-born Awlaki, who received a master’s degree in education leadership from San Diego State University in the early 1990s and returned in 1996 to run the La Mesa mosque, is the world’s most influential Islamic jihadist. He’s more dangerous to our country than Osama bin Laden, many say, because Awlaki, an Internet-savvy, charismatic orator who has his own Web site and videos all over YouTube, is one of the few educated, native-English-speaking radical clerics able to explain the philosophy of violent jihad to young Muslims in the United States.

The world’s most prominent al-Qaida recruiter, Awlaki is in the headlines again, for his recent call for Muslims to kill American civilians and for his connections to several recent terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. The U.S. Treasury Department moved to freeze Awlaki’s assets this summer after the Obama administration added him to a terrorism blacklist. On CBS’ Face the Nation recently, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Awlaki “supports al-Qaida’s agenda of murder and violence. We are actively trying to find him. The president will continue to take action directly at terrorists like Awlaki and keep our country safe from their murderous thugs.”

The sad fact: Awlaki should and could have already been captured by U.S. law enforcement.

From December 2008 to June 2009, at least 18 e-mails passed between Awlaki and Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the November 2009 killing of 13 at Fort Hood, Texas. After that horrific killing spree, Awlaki said of Hasan, “What he did was heroic and great .  .  . I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit.”

Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad reportedly told law enforcement officials that he was a “fan and a follower” of Awlaki, as is the Christmas Day “underpants bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who claimed the airliner attack over Detroit on behalf of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Those who believe Awlaki was a moderate during his days in San Diego are simply mistaken. The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a nonprofit research group that is recognized as the world’s most comprehensive data centers on radical Islamic terrorist groups, obtained several collections of Awlaki lectures on nearly 60 CDs this spring at a bookstore/market in suburban Virginia. The CDs were recorded in the late 1990s when he was heading the La Mesa mosque. Among the themes of his speeches were 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 abundantly, his disdain for Jews, whom he terms “the enemy from Day 1 to the Day of Judgment.”

While covering 9/11 for Newsweek in the weeks following the attack, I learned that Awlaki was a close adviser to two of the three hijackers who lived in San Diego. He held private meetings with Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, the two soon-to-be terrorists, on Friday evenings after prayer services in a conference room at the Arribat Al-Islami Mosque in La Mesa. The austere place of worship, dressed in stucco with blue-green tile, in a nondescript residential neighborhood just off 70th Street, contrasts starkly to the Islamic Center of San Diego in Clairemont — the larger mosque that received so much national attention after 9/11 because the hijackers regularly worshipped there and lived in an apartment complex just a block away.

These clandestine meetings with Awlaki, which I felt might be an important piece of the 9/11 puzzle, were a chilling discovery that should’ve led to a cover story, and more. But it didn’t. Awlaki somehow managed to elude suspicion, not only of the editors of a national magazine but also of federal law enforcement officials, who had detained him.

Suspicion of Awlaki actually began before the 9/11 attack. Between June 1999 and March 2000, the FBI started investigating him. He was vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a San Diego – based Muslim charity widely considered a front for terrorists. Awlaki was being investigated for fund-raising for the Palestinian terror organization Hamas, for possible direct links to al-Qaida and for a visit paid to him by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

A Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego probed Awlaki. A judge in Denver signed off on an arrest warrant on the grounds of passport fraud, but the felony arrest warrant was rescinded by the Denver U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2002. The following day, Awlaki returned to the United States from a visit to Yemen and was intercepted as a terror suspect at JFK Airport in New York (he was on a terror watch list). He was questioned but released on the grounds that there was no open warrant allowing security personnel to arrest him.

Some federal agents such as Ray Fournier, who originally alleged that Awlaki had committed passport fraud, have since said that they did not want Awlaki freed and believed he was linked to al-Qaida. Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators in San Diego were reportedly shocked when the warrant was dropped. “This was a missed opportunity to get this guy under wraps so we could look at him under a microscope,” said one unidentified agent to ABC News. But Awlaki was indeed let go, and the world has become a more dangerous place as a result.

While he should’ve been detained that day at JFK, Awlaki, who was given the rank of a regional commander of al-Qaida in Yemen in late 2009, actually should have been detained immediately following 9/11, and the FBI should have spent more time at that La Mesa mosque, even though Awlaki had left San Diego before 9/11. Given his close relationship with the hijackers, who followed him when he moved to Virginia prior to 9/11, the FBI and/or CIA should have spent more time in San Diego asking questions — and should have held Awlaki just as they did many of the San Diego – based students who had connections with the hijackers.

The FBI did meet with Awlaki several times shortly after the attack, but he was never detained. It was widely reported that authorities asked him about the hijackers and accomplices and showed him photographs, including one of suspected hijacker Almihdhar. Awlaki said he did not recognize him, one of many lies he told during those interviews. But all the bureau had to do was visit some of the worshippers at the La Mesa mosque — or just knock on a few doors in that neighborhood, where several neighbors recognized the hijackers from their pictures in the newspaper. They told me they’d seen them with Awlaki on several occasions at the mosque. One neighbor, Lincoln Higgie, told me that Awlaki had returned to the mosque just a month before 9/11 and told Higgie that he would not be seeing him again and that he would soon discover why.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now every time I think about that comment it gives me chills,” Higgie told me as he stood on his front porch.

Awlaki, 39, was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yemeni parents. He’s apparently now hiding out in Yemen’s Shabwa province, a rugged, mountainous area where he is reportedly under the 24/7 protection of his tribe. Despite his American citizenship, Awlaki is now being pursued for assassination by the CIA, says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

But the chances of finding Awlaki now are about as good as they are of finding bin Laden. Yemen’s prime minister, Ali Mujawar, has said that Yemen would not accept any U.S. attempt to kill Awlaki on its soil. Mujawar also rejected the widely held notion that Yemen has become one of the world’s safest havens for al-Qaida.

Awlaki, who while living in San Diego was reportedly picked up on El Cajon Boulevard at least twice by San Diego police for soliciting prostitutes, left the mosque in La Mesa after serving as its imam for four years. He then traveled to undisclosed locations before becoming the spiritual leader of one of the largest mosques in the country, Dar Al-Hijrah, which lies in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and serves thousands of Muslim worshippers a day.

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