Anwar Al-Awlaki: From American Boy to Face of Terror

U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric killed in airstrike overnight in Yemen.

May 23, 2011, 12:06 PM

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."

Al-Awlaki moved to Washington, D.C., in early 2001 where he pursued further graduate education at George Washington University and served as the imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in suburban Falls Church, Virginia. In Falls Church, al-Awlaki's services were attended by al-Hamzi and a third future 9/11 hijacker, Saudi national Hani Hanjour.

After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI interviewed al-Awlaki repeatedly. His telephone number had been found in the Hamburg, Germany apartment of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a 9/11 planner now detained at Guantanamo Bay.

But just weeks after the terror attack, and days after he'd been interviewed by the FBI, al-Awlaki was invited to a private lunch at the Pentagon as part of an effort to reach out to the Muslim community. When asked by ABC News if al-Awlaki had actually attended the lunch, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said, "We believe that to be true."

"We believe it was hosted by a small group within (but not including) the Department of Defense General Counsel's staff," a Pentagon spokesman told ABC News.

Al-Awlaki left the U.S. for Yemen shortly afterwards. When he returned to the U.S. briefly in 2002, federal authorities again missed a chance to hold him.

The FBI had watched al-Awlaki after the 9/11 attacks, and were searching for a reason to detain to him. They observed al-Awlaki, who had already had two prior convictions for soliciting prostitutes, driving prostitutes from Washington across the Potomac River into Virginia. They considered holding him under the Mann Act, an obscure federal law that prohibits transportation of women across state lines for "immoral" purposes.

Ultimately, federal agents did not detain al-Awlaki or prevent him from leaving the U.S. They were, however, able to come up with a federal arrest warrant for al-Awlaki that could be executed should he return to the U.S.

Investigators found that the U.S.-born al-Awlaki had falsely indicated on his 1990 Social Security number application that he had been born in Yemen. Because the statute of limitations had passed, agents could not charge al-Awlaki with social security fraud. But since al-Awlaki had used his Social Security number to apply for a U.S. passport in Denver several years later, investigators believed he could be successfully charged with felony passport fraud. The alleged offense had occurred within the ten-year statute of limitations.

In October 2002, al-Awlaki passed through JFK airport. Authorities detained al-Awlaki, who was on a terror watch list. But they found they could not arrest him, because the day before he arrived in New York his arrest warrant had been rescinded by a federal judge in Denver at the request of the U.S. Attorney's office.

Shortly after he was released from JFK, al-Awlaki left the U.S. for good. From 2002 to 2004 he lived in the U.K. In 2004, he returned to family's home village in Southern Yemen. He has lived in Yemen ever since, where U.S. authorities said he was a recruiter for al Qaeda, a leading figure in al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the inspiration for terror plots in the U.S. and Canada.

Al-Awlaki had extensive e-mail exchanges with Maj. Nidal Hasan, charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the November 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. He praised Hasan in a published message soon after the shooting.

Accused "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with attempting to blow up Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, met with al-Awlaki while training for jihad in Yemen, say U.S. authorities. Faisal Shahzad, who pled guilty to attempting to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, has said he was inspired by al-Awlaki.

President Obama authorized the military and the CIA to kill al-Awlaki in early 2010, an unusual step given that al-Awlaki retains his U.S. citizenship. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights later tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the government's right to put al-Awlaki on a hit list and freeze his assets. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) had formally labeled al-Awlaki a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" so that it could freeze his assets.

Al-Awlaki responded with several internet messages that taunted President Obama and the U.S. military and called on U.S. residents to wage jihad against the U.S. In November 2010, he released a 23-minute video via radical Islamist web sites in which he said that any jihadi who wanted to kill Americans didn't need a "fatwa" or special religious permission, since Americans are the enemy and the "devil."

"Don't consult with anybody in killing the Americans," says al-Awlaki on the tape, sitting at a desk with an ornate dagger tucked into his belt. "Fighting the devil doesn't require consultation or prayers seeking divine guidance. They are the party of the devils."

The U.S. and Yemeni government had made previous unsuccessful attempts to kill or capture al-Awlaki. Officials said in December 2009 that they believed he might have been killed in a missile strike. In September 2010, Yemeni officials said they thought they had trapped al-Awlaki in a South Yemeni village, but then dropped that claim.

Less than a week after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a raid in Pakistan on May 2, U.S. drones tried and failed to kill al-al-Awlaki in Yemen, according to U.S. officials. Unlike previous strikes in Yemen that have involved Tomahawk cruise missile launched by Navy ships, the May strike involved a predator drone.

Before his death, several U.S. officials said that al-Awlaki's ability to inspire lone wolf attackers made him one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events