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Who is the Imam Consulted by the Ft. Hood Assassin?
A Look at the Terrorist Ties of Anwar al-Aulaqi and the Radicalization Process

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by Susan Schmidt
Published on November 9th, 2009

Anwar al-Aulaqi, the former imam of mosques in Falls Church and San Diego who was a spiritual advisor to two of the 9/11 hijackers is suspected of involvement in terrorist plots directed at the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.

Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen who was imam at Virginia’s Dar al Hijrah on 9/11, moved to Yemen a few months after the attacks. Audiotapes and transcripts of his lectures on waging jihad against the West have been discovered in the password protected computer files of numerous suspects arrested in bombing plots in Europe and North America.

He pronounced suspected Fort Hood slayer Nidal Hasan "a hero" and "a man of conscience" in an internet blog posting Monday.

U.S. officials have believed for several years that Aulaqi’s activities go beyond proseletizing to include recruiting, training, marshaling resources and planning attacks.

"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," a U.S. counterterrorism official told The Washington Post last year.

Aulaqi was arrested in Yemen on August 2006 and released in late 2007. Authorities there had little to say about why he was held. In a taped interview posted on a British website after his release, Aulaqi said he did not know why he was held, but said he was interrogated several times by the FBI. Before his arrest, Aulaqi had been teaching at an Islamist university run by Sheik Abd-alMajid al-Zindani, designated a terrorist in 2004 by the United States and the United Nations.

Aulaqi’s suspected role in terrorist activity deepens lingering questions about the FBI’s conclusion that the 19 hijackers carried out their attack without aid from others in this country.

Aulaqi befriended two of the future hijackers at his San Diego mosque in 2000; when he was hired early the next year by Dar al Hijra, two of the hijackers also moved east to the Falls Church mosque.

The 9/11 Commission and a 2002 House-Senate inquiry both judged Aulaqi’s dealings with the hijackers suspicious and complained the FBI’s failed to fully investigate him before he left the country in 2002.

A review of Aulaqi’s activities reveals that while he was living in this country he had connections to individuals tied to terrorism, including Zindani, as well as contact both before and after 9/11 with now- convicted members of the so-called Virginia Jihad network. Aulaqi and the network’s spiritual leader, Ali al Timimi, shared similar religious views and appeared at Islamic conferences together, including one in England weeks before 9/11. A year after the attacks, Aulaqi returned briefly to the U.S. and went to Timimi’s home in Fairfax to ask about recruiting people for jihad, according to a court filing by Timimi’s lawyer.

Aulaqi, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents studying here, grew up in Yemen. He returned to the US and earned an engineering degree from Colorado State University in 1991.

In the first few months after 9/11, Aulaqi was often sought out by the mainstream media looking for the perspectives of American Muslims. He was often described as a charismatic young spiritual leader at one of the country’s largest mosques.

The Muslim community is "between a rock and a hard place," he told the Washington Times. "We’re totally against what the terrorists [have] done. We want to bring those who [have] done this to justice... but we’re also against the killing of civilians in Afghanistan."

But that was not the view he offered in comments Sept. 17 to IslamOnline. Israelis might have been responsible for the terrorist strikes, and the 19 men named as hijackers were being framed. "It appears that these people were victims rather than hijackers. It seems that the FBI went into the roster of the airplanes and whoever has a Muslim or Arab name became the hijacker by default," Aulaqi wrote.

Aulaqi’s public lectures on Islamic principles–delivered in person as well as sold on audiotape–had gained an international following among of young English-speaking Salafi Muslims who adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. Dar al Hijrah board members have said they hired Aulaqi because of his popularity with young Muslims.

Aulaqi’s discourses in recent years have been openly radical. He often speaks of Muslims as a people under siege. In one taped speech available on the internet, apparently made in 2006, he celebrated the current "Golden Era of Jihad" and predicted a global faceoff between Muslims and "kufr" (unbelievers).

He has lauded the insurgency in Iraq, praised "martyrdom operations" in Palestinian territories and said "America is in a state of war with Allah."

Muslims must take sides, he has said, and "the solution for the Ummah (Muslim world) is jihad."

Other material attributed to Aulaqi circulated in password protected internet chat rooms includes his English language explication of "Constants on the Path of Jihad," a call to arms by Yusef Ayyeri, the now-dead al Qaeda commander in Saudi Arabia. The book-length lecture series has been submitted as government evidence in several recent British terrorism trials.

Ayyeri, known as "Swift Sword," was the author of widely circulated al Qaeda military training manuals. In his lessons promoted by Aulaqi, he says that the Quran calls upon on Muslims to wage war on non-Muslims in every country of the world. His ideas, rendered in Arabic, had no currency in the West until Aulaqi interpreted them in English, said Evan Kohlmann, a terrrorism reseacher who was called by British prosecutors as an expert witness on the materials in a bombing conspiracy trial this fall. Aulaqi is one of a small handful of extremist Salifi clerics who can speak and write in Engish, according to Kohlmann.

Terrorism investigators have found that lecture series and Aulaqi audiotape materials on the computer files of suspects in a string of recent suspected homegrown terrorism cases in the United Kingdom.

The materials were promoted heavily by al Qaeda webmaster Younis Tsouli, the self-described "jihadist James Bond" who posted guides to assembling suicide vests and videos of beheadings in Iraq. Tsouli pled guilty in London to inciting people to commit murder. Tsouli’s computer and phone records tie him to terrorism suspects arrested in Toronto, Georgia, Scotland, England, Bosnia and Denmark, according Scotland Yard.

U.S. government officials have said little about Aulaqi’s suspected involvement in planning terrorist attacks, but sources said information about him surfaced in 2006 in the investigation of a terrorist plot in Britian. It is not clear whether that information was a factor in Aulaqi’s arrest in Yemen on Aug. 31, 2006. The Yemeni government downplayed any ties to terrorism then. Yemen’s ambassador in Washington, Abdulwahab Al-Hajjri has said Aulaqi was held for "kidnapping, stuff like that. Family, tribal stuff."

There were conflicting press reports in the region, some suggesting Aulaqi was involved in a foiled plot by suicide bombers to blow up two oil installations in Yemen. All four assailants were killed during the Sept. 15, 2006 attack, which officials attributed to al-Qaeda.

Yemen, the ancestral home of the bin Laden family, has been a recruiting ground for al Qaeda and other radical groups. Even as it pledges to assist the United States in battling terrorism, the Yemen government has sought to appease militant Islamists.

Notwithstanding his citizenship and a decade spent in the U.S., Aulaqi comes from a prominent family in Yemen. His father, Nasser al Aulaqi, is a retired Yemeni government minister and former rector of Saana University.

"My son is not a terrorist," the elder Aulaqi told the Post in an interview last year. He said he had given a series of lectures at al Zindani’s Al-Iman University in the months before his arrest.

Zindani, who fought with Osama bin Laden during the Soviet-Afghan war, was named a "specially designated global terrorist" by the U.S. Treasury in 1994, accused of recruiting for al Qaeda training camps and funding weapons purchases for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Students at his university, said Treasury, are suspected in terrorist attacks and assassinations; among its attendees before he joined the Taliban was American John Walker Lindh. In 2003, a judge in Yemen said that several prisoners held for the attack on the Cole said Zindani issued a religious decree ordering the bombing, but the judge said he did not look into the truth of their claims. Zindani, a fiery red-bearded Islamic fundamentalist, is a founder of the opposition party Al- Islah, but he supports Saleh.

Zindani’s Al-Islah party runs Yemen’s biggest charity. Tax records show that in 1998 and 1999, while Aulaqi was imam at a mosque in San Diego, he served as vice president of its U.S. subsidiary, the now defunct Charitable Society for Social Welfare, Inc. The group reported collecting funds for the needy in Yemen. US prosecutors have called the group a "front organization" that supported al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Reports issued by the 9/11 Commission and the 2002 Joint House and Senate inquiry into 9/11 noted that the FBI opened an counterterrorism investigation of Aulaqi in June 1999 after it learned he may have been visited by a "procurement agent" for bin Ladin. Federal prosecutors then investigating the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa would use that description for a man named Ziyad Khaleel, who purchased a satellite phone and batteries for bin Laden.

Khaleel also was a U.S. fundraiser and webmaster for the Islamic American Relief Agency, which has been charged with violating sanctions against Iraq. IARA’s website listed Aulaqi’s organization–CSSW–as its partner in Yemen. Khaleel had a curious passing connection to one of the Virginia paintballers. In 2000, he rented a room from Randall Royer’s father in Colombia, Mo., where IARA was headquartered, though the elder Royer told the Post his son and Khaleel never met.

The 9/11 Commission and congressional investigators reported that Aulaqi was visited in early 2000 by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh jailed for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Soon after, however, in March 2000, the FBI shut down its counterterrorism investigation of Aulaqi, saying later it did not have sufficient evidence to bring a case. A month before it did so, hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, fresh from an al Qaeda planning meeting in Malaysia, arrived in the United States and turned up at Aulaqi’s mosque in San Diego.

Witnesses later told the FBI that Aulaqi was a spiritual advisor to the two men. "Several persons informed the FBI after September 11 that this imam had closed-door meetings in San Diego with al-Midhar, al Hazmi and another individual," said the joint congressional inquiry report.

That June, Midhar left San Diego for a return trip to Yemen, where his wife had recently given birth. There his father-in-law was running al Qaeda’s communications hub, where information from operatives in many countries was relayed to bin Laden on his satellite phone.

Aulaqi departed San Diego that summer for an overseas sabbatical. He returned by early the next year, enrolling in a Phd. program at George Washington University. He also got hired as an imam at nearby Dar al Hijrah. Hamzi turned up at Aulaqi’s mosque in April, along with hijacker Hani Hanjour. Eyad al Rababah, a Jordanian man they met there, helped them find an apartment. Rababah later told the FBI he had bumped into them when he stayed around after prayer services to seek Aulaqi’s help finding work. Rababah would end up driving them and two other hijackers to New Jersey and Connecticut.

"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 said in its report.

It was shortly thereafter, in May 2001, that a funeral was held at Dar al Hijrah for Hasan’s mother.

In the days after 9/11, Aulaqi told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he did not know Mihdhar or Hazmi. He told the FBI that he recognized Hazmi’s photograph as someone he met with several times at the San Diego mosque, but could not recall what they discussed. He denied ever meeting him or Hanjour in Virginia.

The FBI has said it did not have enough evidence to detain Aulaqi. Law enforcement sources the bureau wanted looked for ways, and even considered making a Mann act case here when he was photographed traveling with a woman they suspected was a prostitute.

The month after he left, an Aulaqi essay in Arabic appeared on IslamToday lauding the fervor of Palestinian suicide bombers titled, "Why Muslims Love Death." Aulaqi audiotaped a lecture at Masjid a--Tawhid in London months later, praising those who become "shaheeds" and "die in the sake of Allah."

"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," former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham wrote in his 2004 book "Intelligence Matters."

Aulaqi returned to the U.S. for about 10 days in October 2002. Court records show that while he was here, he paid a visit to the Fairfax home of Ali al-Timimi, spiritual leader of a group of hardline young Salafi Muslims who gathered to hear him at Dar al Arqam, a small Islamic center a few miles from Dar al Hijrah. Timimi was convicted in 2005 of inciting his young Muslim followers to go to Afghanistan after 9/11 and to wage war against the United States.

"At that meeting, Aulaqi attempted to get al Timimi to discuss issues related to the recruitment of young Muslims," according to a pre-trial court filing by Timimi lawyer Edward MacMahon, who wrote that the "entreaties were rejected." McMahon filed the motion to learn if government prosecutors had an undercover tape recording of the conversation.

Aulaqi and Timimi shared similar religious views and had appeared together as speakers at Islamic conferences, including one in England in August 2001.

Aulaqi had contact with two other members of the paintball group, court records show. Aulaqi was driven to Timimi’s home that day by Nabil Garbeih, a paintballer and Timimi follower who later testified as a government witness. Another paintball group member, Sabri Benkahla, convicted of perjury for lying about his attendance at jihad training camps, kept on his cell phone a number Aulaqi used abroad, according to FBI testimony at his trial.

In the months ahead, the investigation of the Fort Hood shootings may well prompt the FBI to take a closer look at the road that brought Aulaqi to Dar al Hijrah and the connections he may have made there.

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