In the timeline of the hijackers' movements in the months before the attacks, New Mexico-born Awlaki and his followers seem to turn up nearly every step of the way
Anwar Al-Awlaki / WikiMedia Commons
The Ar-Ribat Al-Islami mosque in La Mesa, California, is a modest building flanked by palm trees in a residential neighborhood. It looks more like a Presbyterian church than a mosque. Ten years ago, this tiny building became a point in the constellation of leads for the U.S. officials investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Starting in early 2000 and continuing for months, two of the September 11 hijackers attended services at Ribat. They received help learning English, searching for flight schools, and getting rides around the area from members of the mosque. And they met behind closed doors with the mosque's imam, a gifted and eloquent preacher by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki.
Nawaf al-Hazmi, one of the hijackers who visited Ribat, told acquaintances that he considered Awlaki a great man and the pair's spiritual leader. Months later, in Virginia, Hazmi would again seek out Awlaki. Again, at least one of Awlaki's followers would provide a helping hand with transportation, finding lodging, and obtaining IDs they could show at an airport security line.
The imam's role in the September 11 attack remains a painful, unanswered question for many Americans. In the years since, Awlaki has waded ever deeper into the waters of Islamic radicalism, openly joining forces with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based offshoot of Osama bin Laden's group, in 2010.
U.S. Rep. Pete King recently opened a new investigation into Awlaki's involvement with the plot, hoping to shake loose details that could clarify what the American imam knew and when he knew it.
There's good reason to take a fresh look. The case that Awlaki was involved in September 11 is not complete and not definitive, but it most certainly deserves a tough examination. What follows, based on hundreds of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and the 9/11 Commission, is not the last word on Awlaki's connection to the plot; consider it an opening argument.
Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, spent his adolescence in Yemen before returning to America. By 2000, Awlaki's recorded lectures were making him a rising star in the world of mainstream English-speaking Muslims, long before his terrorist ties and violent ideology were clear to the public.
Scattered reports suggest Awlaki was involved in jihadism as a young man in the early 1990s, with rumors of a trip to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and a case in which he inspired a young man to go fight with the mujahideen in Bosnia. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest Awlaki himself ever fired a gun at another human being in the name of the cause.
In the U.S., Awlaki had repeated contact with terrorist networks, including al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Group, although the nature and details of these links are unclear.
In the late 1990s, Awlaki was approached by an al-Qaeda facilitator known as Ziyad Khaleel, who performed simple tasks for the terror network, for example paying for a satellite phone to be used by Osama bin Laden. Khaleel and Awlaki were both connected to a Yemeni charity, founded by an associate of bin Laden. Awlaki served as its vice president for a time.
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All of this activity led the FBI to open an investigation in to Awlaki in June 1999, the details of which remain classified. What we do know is that the investigation was closed in March of 2000 -- mere days after Awlaki and his followers had met Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the five al-Qaeda operatives who would crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11.
The hijackers' road to San Diego, and to Awlaki, had begun over lunch. Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi man involved with the leadership of a Kurdish mosque near San Diego, was rumored to work for the Saudi government, perhaps keeping an eye on students and visitors from the homeland.
Bayoumi enjoyed talking about religion; Awlaki was one of his discussion partners. In January 2000, Bayoumi invited an American convert he had befriended, Cayson bin Don, to join him on a trip to L.A.
Bayoumi said he had a series of minor errands to perform there, the details of which seemed to shift with each telling. At least one person later told the FBI that Bayoumi had said he was going to Los Angeles to pick up some visitors.
The men dropped by the Saudi consulate and the King Fahd Mosque, both in Los Angeles. Bayoumi knew people at each location. After the busy work was finished, they went to a halal restaurant called the Mediterranean Café, where they sat at a table and ordered food.
While they were waiting, Hazmi and Mihdhar walked into the restaurant. The two men had arrived in town just days earlier.
According to bin Don, Bayoumi was very friendly, immediately inviting the men to join them. Bayoumi spoke with the men in Arabic, which bin Don did not understand. The conversation ended with Bayoumi giving his phone numbers to Hazmi and Mihdhar and telling them they should come to San Diego.
Because of the serendipity of this meeting and Bayoumi's ambiguous ties to the Saudi government, many investigators and journalists would later suspect that he may have been the primary person tasked to help the hijackers in some way, possibly by someone within the Saudi government. Whatever the nature of their relationship, in the tapestry of connections between Bayoumi and the hijackers, Anwar Awlaki was never more than a thread away.
The connections started as soon as the hijackers arrived in San Diego, a few days after meeting Bayoumi in L.A. At least four calls were made from Bayoumi's cell phone to Awlaki's number during February 2000. One FBI agent later said he was "98 percent sure" the hijackers were using Bayoumi's phone.
One day after the first call, Bayoumi set the hijackers up with an apartment in the San Diego building where he lived, a short drive from the Ribat mosque. He helped them open bank accounts and paid for various expenses, apparently including their first month's rent.
Although Bayoumi's base of operations was at the El Cajon mosque, the hijackers began attending services at Ribat, where Awlaki had about 200 to 300 followers. The congregation was -- according to Awlaki -- "very religious and simple."
Some of Awlaki's most fervent disciples would provide assistance to the newcomers. One was Mohdar Abdullah, a Yemeni college student fluent in both English and Arabic, who was also friends with Bayoumi.
Abdullah was charismatic and well-liked. He lived in an apartment complex around the corner from Awlaki's mosque. When police searched the apartment shortly after September 11, Abdullah's computer was loaded with anti-American writings and videos, including e-mails proposing extravagant terrorist plots and referencing martyrs and grenade launchers.