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Public Safety

Islamic Cleric Raised Red Flags While in San Diego

Anwar al Awlaki's booking photo after he was arrested in San Diego on April 5, 1997.
San Diego Police Department
Anwar al Awlaki's booking photo after he was arrested in San Diego on April 5, 1997.

Long before Anwar al Awlaki said, "Jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able muslim," the Islamic preacher counseled "some of the most infamous jihadists in American history."

Awlaki was an Imam at the Ribat Mosque in La Mesa in 2000 when he held regular sessions with two of the September 11th hijackers -- Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. Intelligence officials said the two Al Qaeda operatives viewed Awlaki as a spiritual adviser.


"He was meeting with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar in the ante room off of the al rabat mosque. Just the three of them."

San Diego-based Ray Fournier is a former state department official who investigated Awlaki.

"It stands to reason that when three people get together and two of them end up being hijackers that end up in the Pentagon, they're obviously discussing how they're going to stay on track," Fournier said. "He's absolving them of their sins. He's making sure that their cover within Western culture is being maintained. He's making sure they're going to stay operational."

Awlaki's meetings with Hazmi and Mihdhar may not have been his first with muslim extremists in San Diego. In 1999, the FBI investigated Awlaki after the bureau received information that he may have been approached by an agent for Osama Bin Laden. And it was during this probe, that investigators learned Awlaki had contact with the Holy Land Foundation involved in raising money for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Awlaki's public sermons didn't yet preach violent jihad. But Fournier said Awlaki was already radicalized before he arrived to San Diego in 1996. He said investigators point to his conduct as a student at Colorado State University.


"It became apparent that he was trying to do a lot of work converting people to Islam there on the campus," Fournier said. "He had a very traditional Islamic appearance, a long beard, wearing the long wardrobe that would be more appropriate for the Middle East."

But there were also signs he was not a complete traditionalist. San Diego police officers arrested Awlaki twice for soliciting prostitutes.

Terrorism Expert Brian Michael Jenkins of the think tank the Rand Corporation said religious extremists have often led colorful early lives.

"And in some cases, their radicalization was a rejection of their own sins," Jenkins said. "They had not been pure. They had not lived up to standards they admired. Rather than clean up their act, they become a zealot -- a zealot that is angry with what they are themselves. And therefore that anger becomes outwardly directed."

Awlaki left San Diego in 2000 to be the imam at a mosque in Virginia. The September 11th hijacker Hazmi, who attended Awlaki's sermons in San Diego, showed up at the same mosque. Some in the FBI believed Awlaki provided material support for the hijackers but they did not have enough evidence to build a criminal case.

So Fournier tried another tactic. Fournier says Awlaki committed passport fraud by stating he was a Yemeni citizen when he entered the United States in 1990 even though he's a U.S. citizen.

The false claim enabled Awlaki to receive $20,000 in grant money to study American culture.

Sometime after September 11th, Awlaki moved to Yemen. Then, Fournier pushed for Awlaki to be charged with passport fraud. An arrest warrant was issued in 2002 but was rescinded shortly before Awlaki returned to the U.S. Fournier says if Awlaki had been tried and convicted, he could have been put away for 10 years.

"It's pretty frustrating to say the least," Fournier said. "We really don't know what future we would have led had the warrant been executed when Anwar arrived in the United States in 2002."

Fournier said he's certain it would have been a different future.

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