The imam's role in the September 11 attack remains a
painful, unanswered question for many Americans. In the years since, Awlaki has
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.
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.
Awlaki also had repeated contacts with an associate of
Omar Abdel Rahman
, the blind Egyptian sheikh whose whose fiery anti-American
sermons inspired the terrorist cell responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center
bombing. In January 2000, an Egyptian member of Rahman's Islamic Group visited
Awlaki's mosque, where he met with the young preacher.
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
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
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
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
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
-- "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.
Abdullah first met Hazmi and Midhar in the late spring or
early summer of 2000. He became friends with the hijackers, acting as both a
translator and chauffer, driving them as far as Los
. He helped them get state IDs and fill out
applications to flight schools
. The FBI would later suspect that Abdullah
advance knowledge of the attacks
due to his unusual behavior in the weeks
prior, but a case was never mounted.
Omer Bakarbashat, was a young Saudi who lived in the same apartment building as
Abdullah. Bakarbashat viewed Awlaki as "almost a
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
. 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
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
. 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
Rababah helped the hijackers find an apartment in nearby Alexandria,
Virginia. He and some of his friends helped them get
(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
by Fox News
, however, said that witnesses spotted them together again
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
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
, "if anyone had knowledge of the plot, it was Awlaki."
Others echoed this suspicion, although some were inclined to call it
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
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.