By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Aulaqi's lectures and Internet postings on Islamic principles excoriate the West and speak of Muslims as a besieged people. In one speech apparently made in 2006, he predicted an epic global clash between Muslims and "kufr," or nonbelievers.
"America is in a state of war with Allah," he said, referring to the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He praised the insurgency in Iraq and "martyrdom operations" in the Palestinian territories. Muslims must choose sides between President Bush and the "mujaheddin," he said. The solution for the Muslim world, he said, "is jihad."
Aulaqi is "a huge inspiration to home-grown terror cells in the U.K. and Europe," said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism researcher who testified as a government witness in a British bombing conspiracy trial. Kohlmann, an American whose work is funded by the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, a privately funded research group, said: "He is one of the very few respected extremist Salafi clerics who can write and speak in English."
Aulaqi's father, Nasser Aulaqi, a former Yemeni government minister, said Yemeni security police confiscated his son's computer and copies of a lecture series he gave at Zindani's al-Iman University. He said his son lectured four times at the university about six months before his arrest, on the history of Muslims in Spain. "He was not a faculty member," Aulaqi's father said in a telephone interview. "There is no radical things in them."
"My son is not a terrorist," he said. "He never advocated violence against anybody."
Anwar al-Aulaqi was born in New Mexico in 1971 while his father studied for a college degree. He spent part of his childhood in Yemen and returned in 1991 to study engineering at Colorado State University. After graduating, he became a mosque leader, first in Fort Collins, Colo., and then in San Diego.
Tax records show that in 1998 and 1999, while in San Diego, Aulaqi served as vice president of the now-defunct Charitable Society for Social Welfare Inc., the U.S. branch of a Yemeni charity founded by Zindani. Three years ago, federal prosecutors in a New York terrorism-financing case described the charity as "a front organization" that was "used to support al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden."
The 9/11 Commission and the joint House-Senate Inquiry into the intelligence failures that allowed the attacks to take place reported that in 1999 the FBI opened a short-lived investigation of Aulaqi when it learned he may have been visited by a "procurement agent" for bin Laden.
Law enforcement sources now say that agent was Ziyad Khaleel, who the government has previously said purchased a satellite phone and batteries for bin Laden in the 1990s. Khaleel was the U.S. fundraiser for Islamic American Relief Agency, a charity the U.S. Treasury has designated a financier of bin Laden and which listed Aulaqi's charity as its Yemeni partner.
The FBI also learned that Aulaqi was visited in early 2000 by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the blind sheik, who was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and that he had ties to people raising money for the radical Palestinian movement Hamas, according to Congress and the 9/11 Commission report.
But the bureau lacked enough evidence to bring a case, and closed its investigation. Around the same time, two future Sept. 11 hijackers -- Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, fresh from an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia -- turned up at Aulaqi's San Diego mosque in early 2000.
Witnesses later told the FBI that Aulaqi had a close relationship with the hijackers in San Diego. "Several persons informed the FBI after September 11 that this imam had closed-door meetings in San Diego with al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi and another individual," the Joint House-Senate Inquiry reported. In press interviews at the time, Aulaqi denied having such contacts.
In January 2001, he enrolled in a PhD program at George Washington University and was hired at Dar al-Hijrah, which regularly draws about 3,000 people to Friday prayers.
In April 2001, Hazmi left San Diego and showed up at Aulaqi's new mosque, along with another future hijacker, Hani Hanjour. They were quickly aided in securing an apartment by a Jordanian man they met there -- Eyad al-Rababah.
"Some [FBI] agents suspect that Aulaqi may have tasked Rababah to help Hazmi and Hanjour. We share that suspicion, given the remarkable coincidence of Aulaqi's prior relationship with Hazmi," the 9/11 Commission concluded. Further, the phone number for Dar al-Hijrah had been found in the Hamburg apartment of one of the planners of the attacks, Ramzi Binalshibh.
The FBI told the 9/11 Commission and Congress that it did not have reason to detain Aulaqi.
Former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, who led the congressional panel on Sept. 11, accused the FBI of bungling investigations of Aulaqi before and after 9/11. "Some believe that Aulaqi was the first person since the summit meeting in Malaysia with whom al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi shared their terrorist intentions and plans," Graham wrote in his 2004 book "Intelligence Matters."
After 9/11, Aulaqi publicly condemned the attacks. But in comments published in English on Sept. 17, 2001, on IslamOnline, Aulaqi suggested that Israelis may have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the FBI "went into the roster of the airplanes and whoever has a Muslim or Arab name became the hijacker by default."
Weeks after leaving the United States in the spring of 2002, he posted an essay in Arabic titled "Why Muslims Love Death" on the Islam Today Web site, lauding the fervor of Palestinian suicide bombers. Months later he praised them in English at a lecture in a London mosque that was recorded on videotape.
Aulaqi briefly returned to the United States in fall 2002, visiting the Fairfax home of Timimi, spiritual leader of an Islamic center a few miles from Dar al-Hijrah, according to court records.
"Aulaqi attempted to get al Timimi to discuss issues related to the recruitment of young Muslims," according to a court filing by Timimi's attorney, Edward MacMahon, who asserted that those "entreaties were rejected."
Timimi was sentenced in 2005 to life in prison for inciting young Muslims to go to Afghanistan after 9/11 and to wage war against the United States. Eleven of his followers were convicted of charges including weapons violations and aiding a terrorist organization. Some had simulated armed conflict by playing paintball in the Virginia countryside, and some went on to camps in Pakistan run by the group Lashkar-i-Taiba, which trained foreign and local fighters for Muslim militant groups including the Taliban.
Court records show that Aulaqi had been driven to the meeting by one of Timimi's followers, who later testified as a government witness. Another convicted member of the group had Aulaqi's phone number on his cellphone, according to court testimony.
Dar al-Hijrah's spokesman and others in leadership positions at the mosque did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.