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Terror Suspect With Ties To San Diego

Terror Suspect With Ties To San Diego

GLORIA PENNER (host): The U.S. government has authorized the killing of U.S.-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for suspected involvement in inspiring terror plots in the United States. While al-Awlaki is currently hiding in Yemen, he used to live in San Diego and preach at a local mosque. KPBS reporter Amita Sharma joins us to discuss her investigation into the Islamic cleric's ties to San Diego. But before we get to the San Diego connection, tell us a little more about him and the terror plots he's suspected of being involved in.

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS reporter): Well, Awlaki is an American-born Islamic cleric who is encouraging Americans worldwide to commit violent jihad on Americans. He is believed to be the inspiration for Major Nidal Hassan, who is accused of shooting and killing 13 people at Fort Hood last fall. He is also believed to have inspired Umar Abdumataalab, the failed Christmas Day bomber, as well as Faizal Shaiyzad, who was the Times Square bomber. As you said in your opening, the U.S. government believes he is trying to wage war against the United States, and it has authorized the CIA to kill him, and it is the first time the U.S. government has EVER sanctioned the killing of an American citizen.

PENNER: It is the first time.


SHARMA: It is the first time.

PENNER: All right. Tell us about the San Diego connection. When did he live here, and preach here?

SHARMA: He moved to San Diego in 1996. And he was the imam at the Ribat Mosque La Mesa, which is just a couple of miles east of here. And he left some time in 2000.

PENNER: And the imam means he was, what, the head of the mosque?

SHARMA: The preacher.


PENNER: He was the preacher. OK. So why was he here? What did he come here to do?

SHARMA: Well, it's interesting. Nobody is quite sure. But one thing investigators know is that while he was here in 2000, he met regularly after Friday prayers with two of the Sept. 11th hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in the guest room, on the second floor of the Ribat Mosque. And it is the belief of Ray Fournier who is the former diplomatic security services agent from the State Department, that he was actively providing spiritual support, keeping these hijackers on track with their mission. It is also the belief of some FBI agents that Awlaki provided material support to the Sept. 11th hijackers. The day that a Saudi man living in San Diego found these two hijackers an apartment to live in, there were four calls noted by intelligence officials between Awlaki and this Saudi man. But even before that, he, an investigation had been opened by the FBI because it was reported that he had been approached by an agent for Osama bin Laden, and it was during that investigation that they discovered that Awlaki had ties, had contacts, with people with the Holy Land Foundation, which raises money for Hamas.

PENNER: Was there ever any attempt to arrest him?

SHARMA: There was an attempt to arrest him. Ray Fournier, the problem is they believe there was material support provided by Awlaki to these hijackers, but they didn't have enough evidence to build a criminal case, so Ray Fournier devised another route, and that was to prosecute him for passport fraud; before he entered the United States in 1990, he said that he was a Yemeni citizen. That's not true. He was born in the United States.

PENNER: Just very briefly, Amita, where is he now?

SHARMA: He is in hiding in Yemen.

PENNER: OK. Thank you very much, Amita Sharma.

SHARMA: Thank you.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.