Because Awlaki was on the early version of the federal terrorism watch list, authorities were allowed to detain him for questioning. According to immigration documents, Awlaki was intercepted by immigration agents before 6:15 in the morning. "Sujbect was escorted to INS primary and secondary by U.S. Customs. He is a match." Agents believed they had an individual who was both on the terror list and had an outstanding warrant.
The FBI was notified by phone that Awlaki was being detained. At 7:40, however, Customs agents learned that the arrest warrant had been "pulled back." At 9:00, after more phone calls, it was confirmed that the warrant was no longer in effect. By 9:20, Awlaki and his family had been released "with thanks for their patiens (sic)." A representative of Saudi Airlines escorted them away "to continue with their flight to Wash, D.C."
After his release from JFK, Awlaki returned briefly to Northern Virginia. According to the Washington Post, while there he visited a radical cleric named Ali al-Timimi and asked about recruiting young Muslims for jihad. In 2003, federal agents raided al-Timimi's home and seized documents and cassettes. He is now serving a life sentence after being convicted of inciting 11 young Muslim men, most of them American citizens, to fight with the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9/11.
Awlaki left the U.S. before the end of 2002 and moved to the U.K. He returned to Yemen permanently in 2004. He was arrested by Yemeni officials in 2006, allegedly at the request of the United States, and held until late 2007. He has now established himself in Yemen as one of the leading international voices calling for violent jihad against the West.
Awlaki's lectures and messages have been found on the computer hard drives of terror suspects in Toronto and New Jersey. One of the men convicted of plotting to attack Fort Dix can be seen on a videotape expressing admiration for the cleric and recommending an Awlaki lecture. Awlaki also exchanged emails with Nidal Hasan starting in 2008. In one message revealed by ABC News, Hasan wrote, "I can't wait to join you" in the afterlife.
After the Fort Hood attacks, Awlaki called Hasan a hero on his Web site. "The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army," he wrote, "is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal."
"Investigators are mad as hell," said Paul Sperry, "and they have a valid point in asking whether a dozen soldiers would be alive today if they'd been allowed to put the screw to Awlaki when they had the chance."