Nov. 30, 2009 -- A felony arrest warrant for radical Islamic cleric Anwar al Awlaki was rescinded in 2002 a day before he was intercepted as a terror suspect at New York's JFK airport, forcing authorities to release him, according to sources familiar with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 Targeted After 9/11
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.
Before investigators could detain him, Awlaki left for Yemen in March 2002. Though American-born, Awlaki had spent much of his childhood in Yemen, his parents' home country, returning to the U.S. for college.
By July 2002, however, Awlaki was under investigation because an individual who was "the subject of a Houston JTTF investigation sent money" to Awlaki, according to a document in a restricted government database. Awlaki's name was placed on an early version of what is now the federal terror watch list.
Then investigators realized they had a felony charge on which they could detain Awlaki. They discovered that the U.S.-born cleric attended Colorado State University in the early 1990's on an F-1 foreign student visa, stating on the visa application that he was actually born in Yemen and not New Mexico. This enabled authorities to charge Awlaki with passport fraud, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
In October of 2002, a federal judge in Denver signed off an arrest warrant for Awlaki.
"We were ecstatic that we were able to get a warrant on this guy," said the former JTTF agent.
U.S. Attorney's Office Rescinds Warrant
However, JTTF investigators were astonished when just days after the warrant was issued, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver decided to rescind it. According to the former JTTF agent, members of the terrorism task force were "disappointed and shocked" by the decision. The agent says the supervisory assistant U.S. Attorney on the case, David Gaouette, had been fully briefed on Awlaki's suspected terrorism ties. At the time, Gaouette oversaw all terror cases in the Denver-based District of Colorado, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office.
Gaouette, an assistant U.S. attorney since 1989, was appointed by Attorney General Holder this August as the interim U.S. Attorney for Colorado. When asked why Awlaki's arrest warrant had been rescinded, a public affairs officer said Gaouette was unfamiliar with the particulars of the Awlaki case, and would have to research it before he could comment. Gaouette's office did not reply to a request for a copy of the Awlaki arrest warrant. The clerk's office for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado was also unable to provide a copy of the warrant, citing the age of the case and the fact that the warrant was rescinded.
Golden Opportunity Missed
Because the warrant was rescinded, authorities say they missed a golden opportunity to detain Awlaki. The morning after the warrant was cancelled, October 10, 2002, Awlaki stepped off a Saudi Airlines flight from Riyadh to New York.
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."
"Follow the Footsteps of Men Like Nidal"
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."