Thursday, June 27, 2013

MEMO TO MEDIA: Stop Defending Radical Anti-American Jihadist Anwar Al-Awlaki

Anwar Al-Awlaki
Shortly after the story broke that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, influenced the surviving Boston bomber suspect, the misinformation about Awlaki began to spread once again. Some reporters are even trying to rewrite the history of Awlaki, who at the time of his death was the most dangerous and influential radical Islamic jihadist in the world and linked to such terrorist plots as the Fort Hood massacre, the Christmas Day bomb plot and the failed Times Square attack.

The latest example of a journalist getting it all wrong is Nation correspondent and author Jeremy Scahill, who while touting his controversial new book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield has repeatedly offered up a wrong-minded and inaccurate analysis of Awlaki. In just the last few weeks, Scahill has told PBS's Charlie Rose, The Tonight Show's Jay Leno, and MSNBC's Alex Wagner that Awlaki was not always anti-American but was "radicalized by U.S. policies" after he left the country.

Not true.


Efforts by Scahill and other liberal and libertarian journalists to condemn Awlaki's killing by the Obama administration and downplay Awlaki's profound worldwide influence and connection to Al Qaeda are misguided at best. 
Are there legitimate concerns about government overreach in this administration? Yes. But Awlaki's killing was justified.

I've covered the Awlaki saga for more than a decade for Newsweek and other publications, and have frequently visited the mosque he once headed near San Diego. I learned a decade ago that, while Awlaki publicly condemned 9/11, he was a behind-closed-doors adviser to two of the eventual hijackers who lived in San Diego. 

Awlaki held private meetings with Al Qaeda plotters Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar on Friday evenings after prayer services in a conference room at the Arribat Al-Islami Mosque near San Diego. The nature of those meetings will likely never be known. But the terrorists followed Awlaki to the East Coast when he left the San Diego area. The rest, of course, is history.


Shortly after 9/11, the FBI met with Awlaki several times during which he lied to the bureau about not recognizing one of the San Diego-based 9/11 hijackers. But to get to the truth, all the FBI had to do was visit some of the worshippers at the San Diego area mosque - or just knock on a few doors in that mosque's neighborhood, where several residents recognized the hijackers from their pictures in the newspaper.


The neighbors, none of whom had been contacted by law enforcement when I interviewed them ten years ago, told me they’d seen the hijackers with Awlaki on several occasions at the mosque. I have no reason to believe that any of these neighbors were anything but credible. 


In 2003, one neighbor, Lincoln Higgie, an antiques dealer who lived right across the street from the mosque and had a friendly relationship with Awlaki, told me that Awlaki returned to the mosque just a month before 9/11 and told Higgie that "something very big was going to happen, and that he had to be out of the country when it happened. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now every time I think about that comment it gives me chills."


There's more. Three years ago, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a nonprofit research group that is recognized as a comprehensive data center on radical Islamic terrorist groups, obtained several collections of Awlaki lectures on nearly 60 CDs at a bookstore/market in suburban Virginia. The CDs, which were recorded in the late 1990's when he was heading the San Diego area mosque, are filled with speeches with radical themes. 


Awlaki was already under suspicion in the late 1990's for helping run a San Diego-based Muslim charity, the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, considered to be a front organization to funnel money to terrorists. Awlaki was also investigated for supporting the Palestinian terror organization Hamas, for possible direct links to Al Qaeda, and for a visit paid to him by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.


A Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego wanted to bring in Awlaki, and a judge in Denver signed off on an arrest warrant on the grounds of passport fraud, but inexplicably the felony arrest warrant was rescinded by the Denver U.S. Attorney's Office in 2002. The next day, Awlaki, who was on a terror watch list, returned to the United States from a visit to Yemen and was apprehended as a terror suspect at the JFK airport in New York. He was questioned but released because there was no open warrant allowing security personnel to arrest him.


Scahill ignores all of these facts and seems unmoved that Awlaki clearly had his hand in a number of terrorist acts. From December 2008 to June 2009, at least 18 e-mails passed between Awlaki and Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the November 2009 killing of 13 at Fort Hood, Texas. 


After that horrific killing spree, Awlaki said of Hasan, “What he did was heroic and great... I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit.”


Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad reportedly told law enforcement officials that he was a “fan and a follower” of Awlaki, as is the Christmas Day “underpants bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who claimed the airliner attack over Detroit on behalf of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.


I lost no sleep when I heard Awlaki had been killed by a drone strike. There was a mountain of evidence that he was linked to a number of terrorists worldwide. Was he deserving of a trial? No. Is it realistic to suggest that we could have ever taken him into custody alive in Yemen? No.


While the lesser known killing of Awlaki's 16-year-old son by another U.S. drone strike is troubling and should be investigated, and while we must as a nation do all we can to minimize civilian casualties in drone strikes, the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki was the right thing to do. 

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