Imam From Va. Mosque Now Thought to Have Aided Al-Qaeda
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Even before the 2001 terrorist attacks, American-born imam Anwar al-Aulaqi drew the attention of federal authorities because of his possible connections to al-Qaeda. Their interest grew after 9/11, when it turned out that three of the hijackers had spent time at his mosques in California and Falls Church, but he was allowed to leave the country in 2002.
New information later surfaced about his contacts with extremists while in the United States. Now, U.S. officials are saying for the first time that they believe that Aulaqi worked with al-Qaeda networks in the Persian Gulf after leaving Northern Virginia. In mid-2006, Aulaqi was detained in Yemen at the request of the United States. To the dismay of U.S. authorities, Aulaqi was released in December.
"There is good reason to believe Anwar Aulaqi has been involved in very serious terrorist activities since leaving the United States, including plotting attacks against America and our allies," said a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. authorities were limited in how far they could push Yemen to hold Aulaqi, officials said, because they have no pending legal case against him. The officials said ongoing intelligence-gathering efforts here and abroad prevented them from providing details about Aulaqi's suspected activities.
Aulaqi, 36, was the spiritual leader in 2001 and 2002 of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, one of the largest in the country. In a taped interview posted this New Year's Eve on a British Web site, Aulaqi said that while in prison in Yemen, he had undergone multiple interrogations by the FBI that included questions about his dealings with the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"I don't know if I was held because of that, or because of the other issues they presented," Aulaqi said without elaborating. He said he would like to travel outside Yemen but would not do so "until the U.S. drops whatever unknown charges it has against me." Aulaqi did not respond to requests for an interview.
In several terrorism cases in Britain and Canada over the past 18 months, investigators found in the private computer files of some suspects transcripts and audio files of lectures by Aulaqi promoting the strategies of a key al-Qaeda military commander, the late Yusef al-Ayeri, a Saudi known as "Swift Sword."
Federal prosecutors in New York alleged in a 2004 terrorism-related trial that a U.S. branch of a Yemeni charity for which Aulaqi served as vice president was a front that sent money to al-Qaeda. Documents filed around the same time in federal court in Alexandria assert that a year after 9/11, Aulaqi returned briefly to Northern Virginia, where he visited a radical Islamic cleric and asked him about recruiting young Muslims for "violent jihad." That cleric, Ali al-Timimi, is now serving a life sentence for inciting followers to fight with the Taliban against Americans.
After leaving the United States in 2002, Aulaqi spent time in Britain, where he developed a following among ultraconservative young Muslims through his lectures and audiotapes. He moved to Yemen, his family's ancestral home, in 2004.
State Department officials said they are barred by privacy law from discussing Aulaqi's detention because he is a U.S. citizen. A senior official of Yemen's embassy in Washington said Aulaqi was arrested over family and tribal matters -- "kidnapping, stuff like that" rather than terrorism. "Nothing has led them to believe he's part of al-Qaeda," he said.
Before his arrest, Aulaqi lectured at an Islamist university in Sanaa run by Sheik Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani, who fought with Osama bin Laden in the Soviet-Afghan war and was designated a terrorist in 2004 by the United States and the United Nations.
U.S. and U.N. authorities accuse Zindani of recruiting for al-Qaeda camps and raising money for weapons for terrorist groups. Students at his university, the United States said, are suspected in terrorist attacks and assassinations; among its attendees before he joined the Taliban was American John Walker Lindh.