Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Anwar al-Aulaqi's descendants were sultans. It should have said that his ancestors were sultans.

Cleric linked to Fort Hood attack grew more radicalized in Yemen

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, December 10, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- The Yemeni American cleric at the center of investigations into last month's massacre of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., became more openly radical in Yemen, following a path taken by other extremists in this failing Middle East nation with a growing al-Qaeda presence, according to relatives, friends and associates in Yemen.

In interviews, they said Anwar al-Aulaqi, 38, blamed the United States for 18 months he spent in a Yemeni jail, a little-known chapter in the cleric's life that some described as a key path in his radicalization.

Aulaqi, who was born in the United States and spent time in Yemen as a child, left for Britain in early 2002 after he drew scrutiny from U.S. authorities. The United States alleges that Aulaqi was a spiritual adviser to three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers while he was a prayer leader at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church and at a mosque in San Diego.

An examination of some of Aulaqi's sermons and lectures, as well as interviews conducted here, shows that he increasingly began to publicly endorse violence as a religious duty after he returned to Yemen in early 2004, completing his transformation from an imam who condemned the Sept. 11 attacks to an Internet preacher who views Americans as legitimate targets.

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who has been charged in the Fort Hood shootings, first contacted Aulaqi by e-mail last December. U.S. authorities intercepted some of the e-mails, but no threat was perceived. The FBI has declined to comment on Aulaqi, citing an ongoing investigation.

After the Fort Hood attack, Aulaqi issued a statement calling Hasan a "hero." In an interview later with a Yemeni journalist, Aulaqi denied that he had ordered or incited Hasan to carry out the attack but said Hasan considered him a confidant.

Aulaqi's path to radicalization, at first, appeared unlikely. The Aulaqis' descendants were sultans who once ruled what is now Yemen's southern province of Shabwa, home to the ancestral village where Aulaqi now lives with his wife and five children. Aulaqi's father, Nasser al-Aulaqi, is a former president of Sanaa University and agriculture minister.

While in Yemen during his childhood, Aulaqi studied in a secular high school in the capital, Sanaa, along with children from other elite families, before returning to Colorado in 1991 to attend college, said a close relative in an hour-long interview. The relative spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid harming his family's efforts to persuade Aulaqi to become moderate.

He said Aulaqi was an avid swimmer who enjoyed deep-sea fishing. His ambition was to become a college professor, focusing on finding ways to address water shortages in Yemen, the relative said. Like many Arabs, the relative said, Aulaqi was angered by the U.S. assault on Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War but didn't show signs of radicalization afterward.

"He was very moderate. He was always against al-Qaeda ideology," said the relative, adding that Aulaqi's contact with the hijackers was a "coincidence."

After Sept. 11, Aulaqi grew frustrated and felt targeted by U.S. authorities, the relative said.

"Sept. 11 changed a lot of Muslims," the relative said. "And the invasion in Iraq in 2003 made him even stronger in his beliefs."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company