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Muslim Cleric’s San Diego History

Audio

Aired 6/10/10

Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki is suspected of inspiring some Americans to commit terrorist acts, including two New Jersey men recently arrested and the shooter in the Fort Hood massacre. Investigative reporter Amita Sharma looks at the five years he spent in San Diego as a imam in a La Mesa mosque.

TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge, standing in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. This weekend, two New Jersey men were arrested at JFK Airport, accused of conspiring to kill Americans with a mission of jihad. They are the latest in several examples of alleged homegrown terrorists. That group includes Nidal Hasan, who’s accused of murdering 13 people at the Army base Ft. Hood. But there’s something else that Nidan (sic) and the New Jersey suspects have in common. They were both inspired by a one-time San Diego imam named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico. And Amita Sharma, the investigative reporter for KPBS, has done a story about the time that this imam, al-Awlaki, spent here in San Diego. She joins me now in studio. And, Amita, thanks for coming in.

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS Investigative Reporter): Thank you for having me, Tom.

FUDGE: Now, al-Awlaki, he’s American born and, therefore, an American citizen, I assume. Before we get to his San Diego connection, tell us a little bit more about him. Why has he become such a prominent character in the fight against terrorism?

SHARMA: Well, Anwar al-Awlaki is encouraging Muslims to commit violent jihad against Americans. He is, as you said in your intro, reportedly the inspiration for suspect Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who was accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood last fall. Awlaki has described himself as a confidant of Major Hasan. They exchanged at least 20 e-mails in the months before the Ft. Hood massacre. Awlaki has praised that attack. He sees it as a legitimate form of jihad. He is also believed to be the inspiration for the failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad. The U.S. government believes he is actively waging war against the United States, and the CIA has been authorized to kill him. And I believe it is the first sanctioned killing by the U.S. government of a U.S. citizen.

FUDGE: One thing that I think we should get straight right away, he’s no longer in the United States, right?

SHARMA: He is not. He is in hiding in Yemen.

FUDGE: He’s in hiding in Yemen. You know, let’s get back to the connection between al-Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of murdering 13 people at Ft. Hood. I think you have learned that some investigators in San Diego actually knew about the connection between those two prior to the shooting.

SHARMA: Well, that is actually what two Senators want to know. Senators Lieberman and Collins, Senator Collins of Maine, are asking the Obama administration to turn over any information the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego had and possibly turned over to the National Security Agency on e-mails between Major Hasan and Awlaki, when they turned them over, what those e-mails contained.

FUDGE: But the short story here is it’s possible that federal investigators knew that these two were connected, knew that they may have been planning something, but the information was never used.

SHARMA: Well, that’s what the Senators want to know. They want to know how this Ft. Hood suspect, Major Hasan, was communicating with Awlaki, who was talking openly about his doubts of whether Muslims should serve in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how he never caught the attention of the FBI or the U.S. military.

FUDGE: Okay. Well, more on that later. Let’s do get back to the time about 10 years ago, more than 10, maybe 15 years ago when al-Awlaki was in San Diego. When did he get here?

SHARMA: He got here in 1996. And he took a job as the imam at the Ribat Mosque in La Mesa, which is right here on the border of San Diego, just east of here. And investigators actually believe that he was radicalized by the time he got to San Diego because they learned through interviews of people at Colorado State University, where he studied civil engineering before he got here, that he actively tried to convert people to Islam and he also had the appearance of a conservative Muslim, at least he had a long beard and dressed in middle eastern garb while on campus. But his sermons did not openly advocate violent jihad at that time. In fact, he condemned terrorism and he condemned the September 11th attacks. But some believe that that may have been a front.

FUDGE: And at the time that he condemned 9/11 he was already in Virginia, I think, and he was viewed by the press as an imam who can comment on this and he said, oh, it’s wrong to kill people and so on and so forth. But you believe that that may have been nonsense.

SHARMA: Well…

FUDGE: And what do we know about his activities in San Diego that might lead us to believe that?

SHARMA: Well, in 2000, while he was the imam at the mosque here in La Mesa, he met regularly after Friday prayers with two other September 11th hijackers who were living in San Diego, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. They met in a guest room on the second floor of the mosque. And is the believe of Ray Fornier, a former Diplomatic Security Services agent at the State Department, that Awlaki was providing spiritual counseling to the two hijackers at the time, giving them sort of stay-on-track messages and it’s believe – it’s the belief, according to the 9/11 Commission report that there were FBI agents, after September 11th, who believed that Awlaki provided material support to the hijackers. Awlaki, the day that a San Diego man by the name of Omar al-Bayoumi, who was believed to be a Saudi agent, found an apartment for these two hijackers, there were 4 calls exchanged between Awlaki and this gentleman, Bayoumi. However, there was never enough proof to build a criminal case against Awlaki.

FUDGE: Well, and I guess that is my next question. Had there been any attempts while Awlaki was in the United States to arrest him or make some kind of connection to illegal activities?

SHARMA: Well, Fornier urged the government to file passport fraud charges against Awlaki, which could’ve carried a sentence of 10 years. So even though Awlaki was born in the United States, he claimed he was a Yemeni citizen when he returned in 1990 to study civil engineering at Colorado State. And he actually received a $20,000 scholarship to study American culture at taxpayer expense, so if he had been prosecuted for this, he could’ve received a sentence of 10 years. But for reasons unknown, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado did not file the charges. Even though an arrest warrant was issued, it was eventually rescinded.

FUDGE: So they dropped the ball.

SHARMA: Well, that’s…

FUDGE: Someone dropped the ball.

SHARMA: …it depends on who you ask.

FUDGE: And this was in 2002, this was after 9/11.

SHARMA: This is in 2002.

FUDGE: After 9/11. But they were, by that time, obviously suspicious of this guy. I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. I’m speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma about some of the reporting she has done on former San Diego imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who has now become a very prominent figure in terroristic circles, including Al Qaeda. Amita, why has this guy been so effective as a recruiter and as an inspiration to homegrown American terrorists?

SHARMA: Well, if you listen to some of his talks on YouTube, he – First of all, he doesn’t really speak with too strong of an Arabic accent. He has a very nice American accent. He’s easily understood. He is also very familiar with American culture; he grew up here, he studied here. And so he is able to sort of take bits and pieces of American culture that are charming but weave them into Islamic messages. And I think that that is what is inspiring American-born Muslims, not just American-born Muslims but people who were born as Christians to convert to Islam and to go abroad as these two New Jersey guys planned to do to be trained as jihadists.

FUDGE: So he speaks the language of jihad and the language of American culture, I guess.

SHARMA: Yes.

FUDGE: Anwar al-Awlaki is a former San Diego imam, and Amita Sharma, KPBS investigative reporter, has been telling us about some of her reporting, what she’s learned about his years in San Diego and what may happen to him in the future. Amita, thank you very much.

SHARMA: Thank you, Tom.

FUDGE: I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. We’re about to take a break. And coming up after the break, we’re going to talk about the ban on gay men giving blood and whether that might be lifted, so stay tuned.

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