Stonewalled by the Justice Department in its efforts to get to the bottom of intelligence lapses that led to the Fort Hood massacre, the Senate Homeland Security Committee has broadened its probe to look into why Justice a year after 9/11 withdrew an arrest warrant for the radical American-born imam who corresponded with the Fort Hood terrorist.
WND has learned that the chief counsel for the Senate panel, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., has requested an interview with a federal agent who shortly after the 9/11 attacks worked with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego investigating Anwar al-Awlaki’s ties there to two of the 9/11 hijackers.
The agent says prosecutors got cold feet and withdrew a felony arrest warrant for Awlaki even after a federal magistrate judge signed it. He and other investigators say his arrest and interrogation at the time may have stopped him from recruiting and radicalizing dozens of other terrorists, including the Fort Hood shooter.
The al-Qaida hijackers, both Saudi nationals, followed the radical cleric from his San Diego mosque, where he met with them in long, private sessions, to his mosque in the Washington suburbs, located not far from the Pentagon building they attacked.
At that Falls Church, Va., mosque – Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center – Awlaki also ministered to Nidal Malik Hasan, the jailed Army officer accused of murdering 13 and wounding 30 others in a jihad-inspired shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas.
His Falls Church mosque handled the funeral services of Hasan’s mother when she passed away in 2001. It was then that Hasan first fell under the spell of prayer leader Awlaki, who later would correspond with Hasan in some 20 e-mails in the months leading up to the Fort Hood massacre. Awlaki praised Hasan as “a hero” and blessed the attack on U.S. soldiers as a legimate form of jihad.
More recently, Awlaki allegedly directed the Christmas crotch-bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and helped radicalize confessed Times Square car-bomber Faisal Shahzad.
With the Times Square plot, the New Mexico-born Muslim cleric is now linked to the last three terrorist plots designed to kill Americans at home. Awlaki, now hiding in Yemen, recently boasted to the Arab press that U.S.-based jihad is “becoming as American as apple pie.”
Authorities believe Awlaki is al-Qaida’s top recruiter in the West and poses a grave and immediate threat to America. The CIA has been authorized to kill him on sight.
Almost eight years ago, Awlaki was detained on a felony arrest warrant, then mysteriously let go, at JFK International Airport in New York.
In a highly unusual move, the Justice Department in October 2002 withdrew the warrant for Awlaki 24 hours before he was taken into custody. Washington advised federal agents to release him. Within days of his release, Awlaki traveled to Virginia and recruited more terrorists. He was allowed to leave the country the next month even though he remained on a terror lookout.
Investigators say they were “stunned” when they heard that the warrant – based on passport fraud charges – “had been pulled back” the day before Awlaki was scheduled to arrive in New York, according to the federal incident log.
“Everybody wanted to get this guy in a chair under a charge” and sweat him for information, knowing his ties to al-Qaida and the 9/11 plot, said Ray Fournier, the lead federal agent who made the fraud case.
But U.S. prosecutors got cold feet. By withdrawing the warrant, Fournier says they blew a key chance to wrap Awlaki up and stop him from recruiting and radicalizing other terrorists.
Remarkably, Justice never told the 9/11 Commission or Congress about Awlaki’s arrest warrant and detention. Fournier and other agents involved in the case were never interviewed.
Details of the catch and release of the No. 1 terrorist in America were first reported by investigative journalist and terror expert Paul Sperry in his 2005 book “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington,” which cites classified documents.
But now Lieberman’s Senate committee, frustrated in its efforts to learn more about why the FBI and Pentagon disregarded e-mails between Awlaki and the Fort Hood shooter, is looking into Fournier’s investigation of Awlaki and how the terrorist suspect narrowly escaped jail years ago.
Lieberman complains Justice has stonewalled his efforts to obtain the Awlaki e-mail communications with Hasan and to interview department witnesses who knew about them before the attacks.
“The administration has denied our request” to see even transcripts of Justice interviews with witnesses, the senator said.
WND has learned the Senate panel’s top lawyer, Gordon Lederman, has requested a meeting with Fournier about his knowledge of Awlaki and Justice’s sudden withdrawal of its warrant against him.
Fournier, who works for the Homeland Security Department, has agreed to brief the committee privately.