A felony arrest warrant for radical Islamic cleric Anwar al Awlaki was rescinded in 2002 a day before he was intercepted as a terror suspect at New York's JFK airport, forcing authorities to release him, according to sources familiar with the case. The warrant was cancelled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, even though Awlaki was on a terror watch list, and even though the office's supervising prosecutor for terror cases -- who has now been appointed by the Obama administration as the U.S. Attorney in Denver -- had been fully briefed on Awlaki's alleged terror ties, according to investigators.
Soon after the 2002 warrant was canceled, Awlaki left the United States for good, settling in Yemen. Since his escape, Awlaki, now considered by intelligence officials to be an al-Qaeda recruiter, has been implicated as the spiritual inspiration for terror plots in Canada and the U.S., and was in e-mail contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, charged with 13 counts of murder in the recent mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.
The decision to cancel Awlaki's arrest warrant outraged members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, which had been monitoring the imam. "This was a missed opportunity to get this guy under wraps so we could look at him under a microscope," said a former agent with the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), who asked not to be named. "He couldn't cause any harm from a prison cell."
"Investigators were aggressively trying to pin Aulaqi down," said Paul Sperry, an investigative reporter and current media fellow at the Hoover Institution. Sperry first wrote about Awlaki's arrest warrant and detention at JFK airport in his book "Muslim Mafia." "They needed something to get him in a chair and put the screws to him," said Sperry, "but that opportunity was taken away when the warrant was mysteriously pulled back."
Awlaki had been investigated by the FBI in 1999 and 2000. Among other things, the FBI discovered he had been in touch with an associate of "the blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, now in prison for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The investigation was closed in 2000 because of insufficient evidence, according to the Washington Post.
After 9/11, however, terror investigators took a fresh look at Awlaki. JTTF agents in San Diego were keenly interested in Awlaki's activities because of his close ties to hijackers Nawaf Alhamzi and Khalid Almihdhar. Authorities say the two hijackers had attended the Awlaki-led Rabat mosque in San Diego and the imam had numerous closed door meetings with the men, leading investigators to believe that Awlaki was their spiritual advisor and had known about the 9/11 attacks in advance. When Alwaki moved to a Northern Virginia mosque in early 2001, Alhamzi had visited him there too, along with a third future hijacker, Hani Hanjour.
But investigators needed a reason to arrest and hold Awlaki. They focused on his apparent interest in prostitutes. FBI sources told U.S. News and World Report in 2004 that Awlaki, who had twice been arrested for soliciting prostitutes in San Diego in the 1990s, had been observed crossing state lines with prostitutes in the D.C. area. They thought of invoking the little-used Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits the interest transport of women for "immoral purposes," to arrest him.