On September 30, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born in New Mexico, was killed by an American drone in Yemen. A little less than ten years earlier, he was living in Virginia, taking classes at George Washington University, and getting pizza from a restaurant downtown. Documents obtained by the activist group Judicial Watch portray the FBI's detailed surveillance of someone who, on paper, seems pretty normal.
In its review of the documents, Judicial Watch points out a number of unusual details from the al-Awlaki (also spelled al-Aulaqi) case file it obtained. (The organization has requested and obtained a number of al-Awlaki documents in the past, including ones indicating that he'd purchased plane tickets for hijackers.) Beginning shortly after the terror attacks of September 11th, the FBI started surveilling al-Awlaki, who at the time was the imam of a mosque in Falls Church. Before moving to Virginia in the beginning of that year, he led a mosque in San Diego attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers.
On February 5, 2002, al-Awlaki spoke at a luncheon at the Pentagon. The day prior, someone ran a query on al-Awlaki, yielding the following warning.
A number of other FBI agents already knew the details of al-Awlaki's life. For months, starting as early as November 2001, he'd been tailed by agents as he puttered around Northern Virginia. He spent a decent amount of time with prostitutes, prompting a memo to senior Department of Justice officials detailing his dalliances and proposing arrest. This wasn't exactly a new habit; in the '90s, while he was in San Diego, he was arrested for solicitation and agreed, with his signature, to avoid certain parts of town, as seen below. (It included a few military installations.)
The FBI's interviews with (understandably nervous) hookers is the most interesting part of the notes from the FBI's post-9/11 surveillance. Otherwise, they're more focused on details like his appearance on NPR or, as Politico notes, going to a pizza restaurant. One note details a particularly boring detail: al-Awlaki's attendance of a "Graduate Studies for Human Development" class at D.C.'S George Washington University.
Judicial Watch didn't point out one interesting aspect of al-Awlaki's studies. Less than a month after the terror attacks, al-Awlaki got his grades. He got an A in Leadership in Organizations, but an "incomplete" in Group Dynamics in Organization.
This was substantially better than his science work during his undergraduate courses at Colorado State some years earlier. He failed Engineering Mechanics and got Ds in Fluid Mechanics and Mechanics of Solids.
The records released today suggest at least one way in which law enforcement might have done its job more effectively. The Virginia Criminal Information Network kept a file on al-Awlaki after he moved to the state, but it might have had trouble tracking him down. In its database, he was flagged as a woman.
That error is noted in the full database report pulled on that day in February 2002. But the warning that preceded al-Awlaki's personal information didn't mention one salient detail: he owned a gun. In 1998, a year before the FBI first began its preliminary inquiry into al-Awlaki, he acquired a Glock semi-automatic pistol.
Whether or not he still had it in 2002 isn't clear. By the end of that year, though, al-Awlaki had moved out of the country; a few years more and he'd become a ranking member of Al Qaeda in Yemen, the "bin Laden of the Internet." And then he was killed.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.