Terrorism expert Patrick S. Poole at Big Peace reports that Anwar al-Awlaki, recently named as the first U.S. citizen to be included on a CIA kill-or-capture order in the War on Terror, was formerly an instructor with the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America. The IIASA was a branch of the Ibn Saud Islamic University of Riyadh, and was certified to train Muslim chaplains for the Pentagon through 2003. The Institute was raided by every government agency prone to raiding institutes – FBI, IRS, and U.S. Customs – in 2004, then shut down for good.
Awlaki worked hard to earn his kill-or-capture order. Newsweek once asked if he was “the new bin Laden.” He’s not much of an improvement over the old bin Laden. He spent a lot of time with three of the September 11th hijackers in 2001, including the man who flew American Flight 77 into the Pentagon. He was spiritual guru to Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and endorsed his killing spree as “heroic and great.” He also counted the Underpants Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdumutallab, as a student. Faisal Shahzad, the man who tried to bomb Times Square, cited Awlaki as an inspiration. The would-be Metro bomber in Washington D.C. was reading his biography. Some say his role in al-Qaeda is primarily as a figurehead. The CIA is right to think it’s time to open a vacancy in the figurehead position.
The official line on Awlaki is that he was radicalized after his time with the IIASA. He received a lot of media attention as a “moderate” cleric denouncing terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and led prayer services on Capitol Hill. However, in addition to his meetings with the 9/11 hijackers, he encouraged a student to join the jihad in Chechnya in the mid-90s, was vice-president of an Islamic charity that federal prosecutors identified as an al-Qaeda front, and drew the interest of the FBI after meeting with associates of both bin Laden and the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman.
Awlaki’s position as an instructor for Muslim chaplains is troubling because the IIASA trained at least 75 of them, and no one is clear on their current activities. The suspicious charity Awlaki helped to manage is still doing business with the U.S. government, winning a $3.5 million partnership to help fight child labor and trafficking in 2008… even though Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, is still associated with the organization.
Terrorism relies on a network of personal connections – it’s all about getting the right person into position, to exploit the weaknesses of an open society. With modern hardware and explosives, the “right person” can do a lot of damage. The U.S. government has an imperfect record of catching them before they detonate, especially when they plant themselves in organizations programmed to ignore them. We don’t need any more Nidal Hasans. It’s important to make sure Anwar al-Awlaki didn’t have a chance to prepare any.