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‘This is My Person,’ CIA Director Allegedly Said of Anwar al-Awlaki

Leaked recordings from Yemen further indicate that "the bin Laden of the Internet" was a U.S. government asset.
Anwar Al-Awlaki  at Dar al Hijrah Mosque

Investigative journalist Alex Rubinstein came out with a bombshell scoop on his Substack this morning, reporting that former CIA Director George Tenet had, in 2001, asked then-President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh to release an unnamed prisoner connected to the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in October of the previous year, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 37 others.

Though Tenet refused to name the person on the call, other sources confirm that the prisoner in question was Anwar al-Awlaki, an influential imam with dual U.S.-Yemeni citizenship, who would go on to become a key figure in Al Qaeda’s recruitment and operations throughout the subsequent decade. In April of 2010, the U.S. citizen was placed on a CIA kill list by the Obama administration, and successfully executed in a drone strike in September of the next year. (His 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen born in Denver, was killed in another U.S. drone strike two weeks later. His eight-year-old daughter was later killed by American troops in an attack ordered by President Donald Trump.)

The content of the 2001 calls leaves little ambiguity about Tenet’s—and the U.S. government’s—interest in al-Awlaki:

Saleh notes that the FBI team tasked with the USS Cole investigation had already arrived in Sana’a, and asks Tenet if the FBI personnel could meet with him to discuss the matter. Tenet refuses, saying “this is my person, this is my problem, this is my issue… The man must be released.”

“I’ve talked to everybody in my government; I told them that I was going to make this call,” Tenet says.

Nor was American support for al-Awlaki limited to the CIA. Even in the wake of the 9/11 attacks months later, he remained a prominent voice in government orbits, though his public and private behavior ought to have aroused serious suspicion.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “al-Awlaki was one of Washington DC’s go-to Muslim sources, considered a moderate Islamic voice with positive views of the United States and the West who did not shy away from publicly condemning Islamist terrorism and the 9/11 attacks” according to a research paper published by the Homeland Security Digital Library. In highly-public remarks, he was condemning the attacks, but just days after he was giving comments to Islamic websites blaming Israel and claiming the FBI had placed the blame on any passenger on those flights with Muslim-sounding names. . . .

Around this time, al-Awlaki would become the first imam in history to conduct a prayer service in the U.S. Capitol.

The special privilege that al-Awlaki enjoyed in the United States during these years is puzzling given not just his growing presence and escalating radicalism online—which earned him the moniker “bin Laden of the internet”—but his real-world connections to some of the most dangerous and prominent Islamic extremists in the country. Rubinstein recounts some of al-Awlaki’s established interactions with, in particular, some of the key players in the September 11th, 2001 attacks—which would have taken place, it seems, just after the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency sprung him from a Yemeni prison.

During al-Awlaki’s time in San Diego, when he wasn’t getting busted for trying to pick up prostitutes or starting failed business ventures, he held frequent, closed-door meetings with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar until he went on what he told reporters was a “sabbatical” through “several countries” in 2000, the year that the USS Cole was bombed.

Some time the following year, al-Awlaki resettled just outside Falls Church, Virginia, and became the imam at a local mosque. He was followed by the three hijackers: Hanjour, al-Hazmi, and al-Mihdhar, and an associate of his set them up with an apartment in Alexandria. Additionally, one accused key planner of the 9/11 attacks, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the so-called “20th hijacker” currently held in Guantanamo Bay, had al-Awlaki’s phone number in his personal contact list when his apartment was raided in the days following the attacks.

Freedom of Information Act requests have furnished the public with under-reported documents showing when the FBI investigated al-Awlaki’s Visa transactions, an entry for “Atta, Mohammed—American West Airlines, 08/13/2001, Washington, DC to Las Vegas to Miami” turned up. Mohammed Atta is widely described as the “ringleader” of the September 11 attacks.

The flight referenced was one of Atta’s so-called “surveillance flights.” Logs for flights of two more hijackers—one of the al-Shehri brothers and Satam al-Squami, also appear in the disclosed Visa investigation documents. The FBI has denied having evidence of al-Awlaki purchasing plane tickets for the hijackers.

Despite what might seem obvious cause for concern, the way events played out from there makes it fairly certain that somebody had al-Awlaki’s back:

[Al-Awlaki] made a stop back in the U.S. in 2002, flying in on a Saudi Arabia Airlines flight with a Saudi agent accompanying him at the connecting airport on his way to JFK, according to law enforcement documents obtained by Paul Sperry.

With an arrest warrant out on him for passport fraud, federal agents detained al-Awlaki upon his return. But a federal judge had rescinded the arrest warrant that very same day, allowing al-Awlaki to walk free.

He’d go back to northern Virginia and meet with Ali al-Timimi, a radical cleric who was later arrested for recruiting 11 Muslims to join the Taliban, to talk to him about getting young Muslims to take up jihad.

Even al-Timimi thought something was suspect, reportedly wondering “if Mr. Awlaki might be trying to entrap him at the FBI’s instigation,” according to his friends. Al-Awlaki left again on a Saudi flight without incident, however, Sperry claims, citing law enforcement documents, that he had another warrant out for his arrest based on an investigation against terrorism financing by the U.S. Treasury Department. That claim has been corroborated by government documents which reveal that FBI agent Wade Ammerman ordered that the warrant be bypassed.

By the time 9/11 Commission Investigators tried to interview al-Awlaki in 2003, they were unable to locate him, according to the report.

And yet, rather than “a moderate Islamic voice with positive views of the United States and the West,” al-Awlaki proved himself a central voice in radical circles both in the U.S. and the Middle East. Even an incomplete list of the extremists influenced by the imam is stunning:

His name would begin to increasingly surface in connection to high-profile terrorist attacks on Western targets: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the perpetrator of a drive-by shooting on a US military recruiting office in Arkansas, claimed to be dispatched by AQAP and carried al-Awlaki’s literature; Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 and injured 30 at Fort Hood, had attended al-Awlaki’s lectures at the Falls Church mosque and exchanged up to 20 emails with him leading up to his attack (al-Awlaki later described Hasan as a “hero”); Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed “underwear bomber,” is believed to have met with him weeks prior in Yemen; a New Jersey man by the name of Sharif Mobley who killed a Yemeni hospital guard after he was captured in a raid against al-Qaeda had made contact with al-Awlaki and went to Yemen to seek him out; and the 2010 attempted Times Square bomber had contacts with him.

But ongoing references to al-Awlaki in U.S. government documents are unambiguous concerning his relationship with the intelligence state. At least as late as the fall of 2003, the increasingly radical leader was treated as an asset.

Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal that al-Awlaki was exchanging emails and voice messages with an FBI agent that year. One document has an FBI agent writing to another “Holy crap, [redacted] isn’t this your guy? The [imam] with the prostitutes.”

Another document has an FBI agent complaining of the 9/11 Commission’s “numerous and unrelenting” attempts to access al-Awlaki. Another memo dated within days of al-Awlaki’s return to the U.S. to meet with al-Timimi has al-Awlaki’s name in the subject line in addition to “Synopsis: Asset reporting.”

There’s not much room for interpretation or explanation there. Such reports contribute to a mountain of evidence that the United States government has, for decades, granted both material and personal support to terrorists. The picture is familiar enough—plenty of people know that bin Laden was supported by the CIA when he was starting out—but the public hardly recognizes how enduring, wide-ranging, and destructive the cooperation really is. More work like Rubinstein’s is required to establish the full scope of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of the Middle East, to illuminate the relationship between that involvement and our ongoing wars in the region, and to demand accountability for grave government misconduct. Even today, as Rubinstein notes, the United States is rubbing elbows with Al Qaeda in Yemen. He quotes an important authority:

Saudi-born Ali al-Ahmed of the Gulf Institute, a leading expert on Saudi politics and terrorism, told me that he is not at all surprised by the phone call between George Tenet and Yemen’s former president.

“I’ve been saying this for a long time,” al-Ahmed told me. “People that think that these organizations; al-Qaeda, ISIS, are organic, non-state-backed organizations are either lying or are completely stupid. The fact that ISIS had all these American weapons, they didn’t come from thin air. This was part of a plan. The same thing with al-Qaeda; the fact that this organization which has been attacked all over the world continues to survive 20 years on, and spread, it’s not by accident. It’s done by security and intelligence organizations in Washington, D.C. and in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and by Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

Al-Ahmed later repeated the point, taking it one step further:

“Al-Qaeda and ISIS would not survive without state support, including the U.S., and they do it because it serves their interests. Not the interests of the U.S., but of those in power and the companies that make money off this,” he said.