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.
FBI agents wanted to arrest Awlaki but couldn't close the case before he left the U.S. for good in 2002The 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.
Omer Bakarbashat, was a young Saudi who lived in the same apartment building as Abdullah. Bakarbashat viewed Awlaki as "almost a god," according to an FBI agent. By his account, Hazmi and Mihdhar approached him after prayers one day at Ribat and asked for English lessons, which he provided.
Osama Awadallah, a Jordanian immigrant, roomed with Bakarbashat for a time. The FBI later said they believed he shared the Saudi's exalted view of Awlaki. When searched after September 11, Awadallah's home was filled with photographs, videotapes, and news articles featuring Osama bin Laden, as well as flyers containing bin Laden's fatwas.
When police searched the car that a group of hijackers -- including Hazmi -- drove to Washington Dulles International Airport on September 11, they found Awadallah's phone number written on a scrap of paper. The car itself was registered to an address where Bakarbashat had moved in August 2001.
Abdullah, Awadallah, and Bakarbashat all worked at a Texaco station in La Mesa. In time, so would Hazmi, hired by a manager at the station on the basis of a recommendation from someone attending Awlaki's mosque.
Shortly before Hazmi left San Diego for good in late 2000, he brought someone else by the station -- a third Flight 77 hijacker, Hani Hanjour. Hazmi told his coworkers he would be famous someday. But for now, he said, they were leaving California to take flying lessons in Arizona.
Awlaki himself met with Hazmi and Mihdhar several times, often behind closed doors. He found Hazmi to be soft-spoken and slow to open up, or at least that was what he told the FBI after the attacks. Hazmi didn't come off as particularly religious, Awlaki said in the interview; he didn't wear a beard and didn't pray five times a day.
In late summer of 2000, Awlaki stepped down from his position at Ribat to travel overseas. By now, word was beginning to spread about Awlaki's oratorical skills. He was a hot commodity in certain circles of religiously observant American Muslim -- fluent in English, with a flair for captivating young audiences. Recordings of his lectures on CD became brisk sellers.
In early 2001, Awlaki was hired to preach at Dar El Hijrah in Falls Church, Virginia, one of the nation's most prominent mosques, with 400 to 500 regular members. The FBI believed that some Dar El Hirjah members were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
In early April, Hazmi and Hanjour drove to Falls Church from Arizona, where they had been training as pilots.
A few days before they left, Hanjour asked a utility company to forward his security deposit refund to Dar El Hijrah's address. The phone number for Dar El Hijra was also found during a post-September 11 search at the home of Ramzi Binalshibh, the al-Qaeda facilitator based in Germany who was tasked with assisting the hijackers during their time in America.
In Virginia, the two hijackers, as in California, showed up on the doorstep of Awlaki's mosque within days of arriving in town -- probably within the first 24 hours, according to the FBI's chronology of the hijackers' movements.
Correlations piled on top of correlations have strained credulity for many of the investigators who looked back on these months before September 2001, and who found the renewed contact between Awlaki and Hazmi highly suspicious given the months and thousands of miles that had passed between them. In interviews with the FBI, Awlaki denied having any contact at all with Hazmi and the other hijackers in Virginia. As many as four of the September 11 hijackers attended Awlaki's services at Dar al-Hijrah.
Another member of Awlaki's flock at the time was Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who would later kill 13 soldiers in a 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood after e-mail exchanges with the imam.
As in San Diego, the hijackers received help settling into the area from attendees at Awlaki's mosque. One of those helpers was Jordanian citizen Eyad al Rababah, who initially told the FBI he met the hijackers at a convenience store, but later admitted the first encounter took place at Dar El Hijrah.
According to Rababah, he had gone to the mosque looking for help finding a job. He said he had a meeting with Awlaki, immediately after which he "ran into" the hijackers.
Rababah helped the hijackers find an apartment in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. He and some of his friends helped them get driver's licenses (illegally). About a month later, in May 2001, Rababah met two more of the hijackers, driving the group of four to Connecticut to look for a new apartment.
All five men stayed at a Connecticut hotel together, calling real estate agents and flight schools. The next day, Rababah drove them to Paterson, N.J., where he had previously lived, and showed them around. He stayed with them one more night at the hotel. After that, the hijackers moved to Paterson, and Rababah claimed he never saw them again. September 11 investigators interviewed by Fox News, however, said that witnesses spotted them together again later.
The network of relationships among Awlaki, Omar al-Bayoumi, the hijackers, and the helpers remains ambiguous today, even among those in a position to know. FBI agents working the case wanted to arrest Awlaki but couldn't close the case before he left the United States for good in 2002.
The 9/11 Commission found Awlaki's role suspicious enough to mention explicitly, but said the Commission was "unable to learn enough about Awlaki's relationship with Hazmi and Mihdhar to reach a conclusion." Nevertheless, they wrote, "some [FBI] agents suspect that [Awlaki] may have tasked Rababah to help Hazmi and Hanjour. We share that suspicion."
In the immediate wake of September 11, a number of journalists probed Omar al-Bayoumi's relationship to the hijackers but turned up little new information. Questions were raised but never answered about the possibility Bayoumi was a "handler" for the hijackers, working on behalf of someone in Saudi Arabia. A Congressional probe found that Bayoumi had "tasked" some San Diego Muslims to assist the hijackers.
But most of the people who provided assistance to the hijackers in San Diego were as close to Awlaki as they were to Bayoumi, if not closer. For the helpers, Awlaki was not just a friend or an acquaintance, as they described Bayoumi, but an authority figure and a source of inspiration. Was Awlaki at the center of the network, rather than the long-scrutinized Bayoumi?
Perhaps the most damning indication that Awlaki may have been involved with the plot is the Virginia leg of the hijacker's trip across America. Even if the hijackers found him by chance in San Diego, the evidence strongly suggests they sought him out in Falls Church, far away from Bayoumi and his network of friends. In reviewing their many interactions as they traveled around the U.S. in the months before September 2001, it is Awlaki, not Bayoumi, who emerges as the most common thread.
The hijackers didn't show up in Virginia and stumble into the first mosque they found. They selected Dar El Hijrah while still in Arizona, and information about the mosque was also held by the September 11 facilitator Binalshibh.
Nor did the hijackers delay in finding Awlaki; according to FBI logs of their ATM withdrawals, they showed up at Dar El Hijrah immediately on arriving in Virginia.
One FBI agent who investigated the helpers told the 9/11 Commission, "if anyone had knowledge of the plot, it was Awlaki." Others echoed this suspicion, although some were inclined to call it coincidence.
If Awlaki was indeed helping the hijackers, the final question becomes, What did he know?
It's not clear that Awlaki knew the men were members of al-Qaeda or that they were planning a terrorist attack. He may have simply been helping them as fellow Muslims. He might have been asked to help them by one of his previous connections with al-Qaeda or the Islamic Group. That help could have been offered without any clue as to the hijackers' mission.
But the pattern of events, combined with Awlaki's current status as one of the world's most high-profile members of al-Qaeda -- and one of only three or four Americans on a classified White House "kill list" -- makes it exceedingly hard to dismiss these contacts as sheer coincidence.
I recently e-mailed Awlaki through an address provided by a contact with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula asking for clarification of his links to the hijackers. As of this writing, I have received no reply.
Most of Awlaki's associates who helped the hijackers have since been deported or have left the country under their own volition.
The evidence currently available to the public (a fraction of the evidence sealed by the FBI and the 9/11 Commission) does not establish Awlaki's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the preponderance of evidence suggests that only a new and more transparent investigation can establish the truth of his involvement.
Ten years after September 11, the case against Anwar al-Awlaki remains unsolved, but it can hardly be considered closed.
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