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."
U.S. authorities have alleged that Aulaqi had become radicalized while still in the United States, before the Sept. 11 attacks, but they never found evidence to detain him.
Beginning in 2002, when he left the United States for Britain, Aulaqi lauded Palestinian suicide bombers on a Web site and in lectures attended by ultraconservative Muslims. He spoke at fundraising events hosted by Cage Prisoners, a rights group in Britain, but did not incite violence or express support for al-Qaeda, said Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee who heads the group. "He wouldn't have been so popular if his message was not moderate and across the board," Begg said in a phone interview from London.
In early 2004, Aulaqi returned to Yemen. At a lecture at Sanaa University, he spoke eloquently about Islam's role in the world. He railed against U.S. policies in Iraq. He denounced Israel, according to those present at the lecture. But he stopped short of calling for violent jihad.
"He was not inciting us to use arms," recalled Adil al-Howlari, who now works as a journalist for the United Nations. "He was talking about how to use English to spread Islamic values."
Aulaqi eventually took classes and lectured at Iman University in Sanaa. The university is led by Sheik Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an influential religious figure whom U.S. officials have described as Osama bin Laden's spiritual leader and placed on a list of global terrorists.
The university has a reputation as an incubator of radicalism. John Walker Lindh, an American who fought with the Taliban, is a former student. Other students allegedly took part in numerous attacks.
Aulaqi's relative said the cleric had given four lectures at the university about Islam's role in medieval Spain.
By 2006, Aulaqi's influence had widened into the world of terrorism through his Web site and Facebook page, even though most Yemenis had never heard of him. Starting that year, investigators have found Aulaqi's sermons downloaded on the computers of suspects in nearly a dozen terrorism cases in Britain and Canada.
In mid-2006, Yemeni authorities arrested him. Aulaqi was accused of inciting attacks against a man over a tribal matter involving a woman. Aulaqi denied the allegations in an interview with Begg last year and accused the U.S. government of pressuring Yemen to keep him locked up.
In that interview, Aulaqi said he spent the first nine months in solitary confinement in an underground cell. Around September 2007, FBI agents interrogated him about the Sept. 11 attacks and other issues, Aulaqi told Begg. Although he wasn't physically abused, Aulaqi said, a U.S. Embassy legal attache swore at him. He was never charged and was released in December 2007.
Yemeni officials have declined to comment.
After his release, Aulaqi's stance on using violence for jihad grew more forceful. Last December, he penned a letter calling for fighters and financing for al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist movement with ties to al-Qaeda. And this January, he published an essay titled "44 Ways to Support Jihad." It called, among other things, for Muslims to stay fit and train in weapons to fight on the battlefield.