Sept. 30, 2011 — -- Radical al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki's life may have ended in the violent blast of an airstrike in the heart of Yemen, but it started a half-a-world away in the heart of America.
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico, where his Yemeni-born father was attending school, but as a boy moved back to Yemen with his family in 1978. He returned to the U.S. in 1991 to attend college in Colorado.
By 1994, al-Awlaki, who had no formal religious training, had become the imam of a Muslim center in Denver. He moved to San Diego in 1996, where he attended graduate school and served as an imam at a local mosque.
While al-Awlaki was establishing himself as a religious leader, he was also succumbing to temptation. In San Diego, he was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes. He pled guilty both times, paying a fine and attending an AIDs awareness class for a 1996 charge and paying a fine, performing community service and serving three years of probation for the second offense.
It was al-Awlaki's ties to jihad, however, that brought him to the attention of federal authorities. In San Diego, he met with an associate of so-called "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman, who had been convicted in connection with the 1993 terror attack on the World Trade Center. He was also serving as the vice president of an Islamic charity founded by a man believed to be an Osama bin Laden associate. The charity was thought to be an al Qaeda front. After a federal investigation, no charges were brought.
Two of the future 9/11 hijackers visited and met with al-Awlaki while he was serving as an imam in San Diego. In 2000, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Midhdar, both Saudis, traveled from an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia, where both the upcoming attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen and 9/11 were discussed, to San Diego. While staying in California, the men attended al-Awlaki's mosque and had private meetings with him.
The 9/11 commission report later found: "Another potentially significant San Diego contact for [9/11 hijackers] Hazmi and Mihdhar was Anwar Al-al-Awlaki, an imam at the Rabat mosque. ... The operatives may even have met or at least talked to him the same day they first moved to San Diego. Hazmi and Mihdhar reportedly respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him."