From American Citizen to Imam to Terrorist to Drone Killing
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 529
Compiled and edited by Scott Shane
Posted September 15, 2015
Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times and author of nsarchiv.
Washington, D.C., September 15, 2015 – Anwar al-Awlaki was an American imam who later became the most influential English-language recruiter for the cause of violent jihad, an ideological journey illuminated by the new book Objective Troy and primary source documents gathered by the author, Scott Shane, and published today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org).
Awlaki was also the first United States citizen since the Civil War to be hunted down and killed without trial by his own government. His life poses in particularly acute form a vexing question: How does an intelligent, worldly man decide to devote his last years to trying to kill civilians who are strangers to him? His death raises equally pointedly a companion question: How has the fear of terrorism changed America, prompting the government to abandon long-embraced principles in search of safety?
Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1971 when his father was a student at New Mexico State University, Anwar al-Awlaki spent his early years in the United States and spoke English better than Arabic. At the age of 7, he moved with his family to Yemen, where his father, Nasser al-Awlaki, began a long and distinguished public career, including terms as minister of agriculture and university chancellor. When Anwar was 19, his father sent him back to the United States to study engineering at Colorado State University. He graduated and briefly took an engineering job, but he had developed a deep interest in Islam and discovered a talent for preaching, and he soon took a part-time job as an imam in Denver. His success led to a full-time job at a mosque in San Diego, and then in early 2001 to a far larger and more prominent mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington. After the 9/11 attacks, which he publicly and privately condemned, Awlaki quickly came to national attention as a Muslim cleric who could both articulate the grievances of Muslims about American foreign policy and explain the mysteries of Islam to Americans suddenly interested in this unfamiliar religion.
But he suddenly left the United States in 2002 after learning that the FBI had followed him on regular visits to prostitutes around Washington and panicking about the possibility that he could be exposed as a hypocrite before his conservative congregation. He moved to London, where he moved in radical circles and took a steadily more intolerant line in his lectures, and then to Yemen, where he was followed by security police and imprisoned for 18 months, at least in part due to the encouragement of the United States.
Awlaki with the Al Qaeda flag calling for death to Americans, March 2010 video.
Shortly after his release in late 2007, he moved to his family’s ancestral tribal territory of Shabwah governate, where he eventually joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He called on all Muslims to attack America and began to participate in active plotting against the United States, helping to recruit and coach a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 over Detroit. He also appears to have played an important role in the dispatch in October 2010 of bombs hidden inside printer ink cartridges on cargo planes headed to the United States. A tip from Saudi authorities thwarted that plot.
By then, after a legal review, President Obama had added Awlaki to the kill list, authorizing his capture or killing on the basis that he posed an imminent threat to the United States. He was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 along with an American acolyte, Samir Khan, with whom he had published the slick English-language Al Qaeda magazine Inspire. Two weeks later, in another drone strike that American officials said was a mistake, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who had left home to try to find his father, was killed. His death generated far more anti-American anger in Yemen than Anwar al-Awlaki’s death.
Awlaki left behind a hugely influential collection of writings, audio recordings and videos that have surfaced again and again in terrorism cases in the West. His fluent American English, his calm eloquence, and his firsthand understanding of the peculiar pressures on Muslims in the West, seem to have given him an unusual ability to connect with young people looking to religion for a cause. The attention he drew from anxious American authorities over many years meant that many government documents shed light on his life, on the government’s view of him at different stages, and on the legal analysis that justified his extrajudicial execution. Many of the documents below were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by J.M. Berger of Intelwire, an author and researcher on terrorism; by the conservative Washington organization Judicial Watch; and by the author in researching his book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone, published September 15, 2015 by Tim Duggan Books, a division of Crown.
1) U.S. Agency for International Development certification with incorrect birthplace
This form, dated 1990, confirms that Anwar al-Awlaki was qualified for an exchange visa and that USAID was providing “full funding” for his studies at Colorado State University. The document lists Anwar’s birthplace incorrectly as Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, which he later said was a deliberate falsehood offered at the urging of American officials who knew his father so that he could qualify for a scholarship reserved for foreign citizens. In 2002, the inaccuracy would briefly become the basis for an arrest warrant on fraud charges, which prosecutors withdrew.
At least twice, in August 1996 and April 1997, Awlaki was arrested for soliciting policewomen posing as prostitutes in areas of San Diego known for streetwalking. He was married and working in his first full-time job as an imam, leading a conservative congregation. It was a habit that he would resume after moving to a bigger mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, in early 2001.
3) Excerpt from the FBI’s 1999 investigation of Awlaki
Concerned about Awlaki’s contacts with some people under investigation for terrorist ties, the FBI opened a terrorism investigation of him in June 1999, collecting public records such as these from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. But they found nothing alarming and closed the investigation the next year.
The cover of Inspire, Awlaki’s magazine in 2010, with a headline "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom."
4) Awlaki’s application to a Ph.D. program in educational leadership at George Washington University
In the summer of 2000, partly in response to pressure from his father, Anwar al-Awlaki left his job at the San Diego mosque and applied for the doctoral program in educational leadership at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. At the same time he was hired as imam at a far larger and more prestigious mosque, Dar al-Hijrah, in Falls Church, Va. His Ph.D. application included his transcripts from undergraduate and graduate studies at Colorado State and San Diego State, as well as references from American and Yemeni professors whose names are redacted. What is notable is that Awlaki omits any mention of his work as a highly successful preacher from his curriculum vita and his personal essay. His Yemeni reference refers to an agreement to hire Awlaki on completion of his doctorate to run a new department of technical education at the University of Sanaa. So the documents suggest that at the age of 29, despite his success as an imam, Awlaki was seriously considering leaving his religious work for an academic job.
5) FBI first interview with Awlaki, September 15, 2001.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, FBI agents learned that two of the hijackers had prayed regularly in Awlaki’s mosque in San Diego, and that one of those hijackers and a third hijacker had turned up at his new mosque outside Washington. Worried that he might have some connection to the plotters, F.B.I, agents interviewed Awlaki at least three times in the weeks after 9/11, once with a lawyer present. He recalled a slight acquaintance with one of the hijackers, Nawaz al-Hazmi, from San Diego, who some others in the congregation thought they remembered seeing visiting the imam in his office. Awlaki condemned the attacks but behaved warily, declining to retrieve his passport or to discuss whether he preached about jihad. The FBI would later conclude there was no evidence Awlaki was in on the 9/11 plot, but the decision to put the imam under 24-hour surveillance would have major unintended consequences.