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Agents from San Diego’s Joint Terrorism Task Force “pestered” counterparts in Washington, D.C., to investigate the Army psychiatrist who would later become the alleged Fort Hood shooter because of his communication with a former San Diego imam who counseled Sept. 11 hijackers, federal law enforcement sources said.
To the consternation of the San Diego agents, who had intercepted about 18 to 20 e-mails between Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the Washington Joint Terrorism Task Force determined the communications did not pose a threat and failed to act or pass information along to the military, said two sources familiar with the situation.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is secret and the e-mails are classified. The sources are not part of either task force.
What has unfolded is a blame game within the FBI pitting the San Diego office against Washington.
As an independent review of the FBI’s actions gets underway, San Diego agents are preparing to defend their handling of the communications between al-Aulaqi and Hasan, who is accused in the fatal shootings of 13 people and the wounding of dozens more on the Texas Army base Nov. 5.
“Why are they talking about something that’s classified and pointing the finger this way?” one of the sources said, referring to the Washington field office. The source added: “They’re pointing the finger this way, otherwise it’s mud on their face.”
In the months leading up to the Fort Hood massacre on Nov. 5, Hasan and al-Aulaqi exchanged e-mails in which they discussed religious and financial matters, including transferring money overseas surreptitiously, according to the Washington Post.
A blog entry posted on al-Aulaqi’s website after the attack at Fort Hood called Hasan a “hero” and a “man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.” The website has since been removed.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week he tapped Judge William Webster, a former FBI director, to conduct the investigation in part to make recommendations for change if Justice Department rules blocked the sharing of information, both within the FBI and with the military.
One federal source described the probe this way: “Webster is going to investigate the Fort Hood guy and al-Aulaqi and whether the FBI screwed up. They’re saying San Diego failed to communicate the e-mails — but San Diego pestered the shit out of them, sending e-mails multiple times. The Washington field office didn’t do anything on it.”
The Washington Post, quoting anonymous counterterrorism sources, said San Diego agents sent most of Hasan’s e-mails to counterparts in Washington initially, but later did not pass along at least two troubling e-mails after determining the chatter was “in keeping with Hasan’s research interests.”
Not so, said federal sources in San Diego.
“Everything was fully communicated to the Washington field office, they had computer access to everything San Diego had,” a law enforcement source said. “It was received and [Washington] said they didn’t think it was an issue.”
Darrell Foxworth, the local FBI spokesman, declined to comment.
A news release from the FBI’s national press office, explaining its actions in vague terms, acknowledged the e-mails but didn’t specify which terrorism task force determined they were innocent, nor did it identify al-Aulaqi.
“Because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else derogatory was found, the JTTF concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning,” the release said, later adding: “Further dissemination of the information regarding Major Hasan was neither sought nor authorized.”
The San Diego agents were concerned enough to pass along the information because they were all too familiar with al-Aulaqi, former leader of the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque on Saranac Street on the border of San Diego and La Mesa, where Sept. 11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar attended in 2000.
The agents have been monitoring al-Aulaqi since he came to their attention after the terrorist attacks. In the Fort Hood matter, the agents had tracked the communication between Hasan and al-Aulaqi from December 2008 to the middle of this year, federal sources said.
San Diego counterterrorism agents believe al-Aulaqi, who has since returned to Yemen and is believed to be an al-Qaeda recruiter, had advanced knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and has since inspired others to commit terrorist attacks around the world.
While in San Diego, al-Aulaqi routinely met with Alhazmi and al-Midhar behind closed doors at the Saranac Street mosque after Friday prayers, said Ray Fournier, then a San Diego-based agent with the State Department who investigated al-Aulaqi.
After departing San Diego in early 2001, al-Aulaqi became spiritual leader of a mosque in Falls Church, Va., which was also attended by Alhazmi, al-Midhar and a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour, a pilot. The trio was aboard the jet that crashed into the Pentagon.
Al-Aulaqi, whose name has also been spelled “al-Awlaki,” left the United States in early 2002, as law enforcement attention focused on him, but before the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force could build a solid terrorism case against him.
The San Diego counterterrorism agents, stinging from what they call undeserved criticism over their handling of the Hasan-Aulaqi e-mails, noted they are the same investigators who feverishly worked to build any case — terrorism or not — against al-Aulaqi in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, only to have it rejected in 2002 by federal prosecutors in Denver.
Charges were filed and an arrest warrant was issued for al-Aulaqi on June 17, 2002, by a magistrate judge in Denver, for felony passport fraud. But three months later prosecutors decided they didn’t have enough evidence to support a conviction and went to the judge and had the warrant rescinded.
Al-Aulaqi had already left the United States when the warrant was issued, but he briefly returned a few days after the warrant had been canceled and could have been apprehended, said Fournier, who put together the case against al-Aulaqi at the request of San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force agents.
Fournier said he was profoundly disappointed when the case was dropped and even flew to Denver to speak to the prosecutor, to no avail.
He said the passport case was critical because agents needed to buy time to build a terrorism case against him. “A lot of people are still upset about it,” Fournier said. “You don’t give up an opportunity to arrest the spiritual leader of three of the 9/11 hijackers based on a misperceived viewing of probable cause that’s already been determined by a judge. It’s just insanity.”
“In my view we had an obligation to the families (of 9/11 victims). We’re not bending any rules, just looking at it with a different set of lenses than if it had been Joe Schmoe committing fraud. He was a very unique individual and it was very unique times.”
Al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen, was born in Las Cruces, N.M. on April 21, 1971. His parents were attending New Mexico State University as foreign students from Yemen, studying agriculture. But soon after his birth, the family returned to Sanaa, Yemen, where he was raised.
According to court documents and Fournier, al-Aulaqi obtained a student visa in Yemen and returned to the U.S. on June 5, 1990, as a college student studying engineering at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, where he posed as a foreign student to get a $20,000 scholarship.
The day after arriving in the U.S. for school, al-Aulaqi applied for a Social Security number by claiming to be born in Yemen. He couldn’t be prosecuted for fraud because the statute of limitations has expired. But in 1993, he used that illegally obtained social security number on a U.S. passport application, according to the arrest warrant.
Prosecutors balked when they learned that around 1996, al-Aulaqi had corrected his place of birth on the Social Security application, making the number valid.
U.S. Attorney David Gaouette of Denver, who was assigned to the case and decided to drop it, told ABC News he could not continue with a case just “because someone has a bad reputation.”
For San Diego agents, their unheeded warnings about Hasan and al-Aulaqi before the shootings conjured memories of the way FBI headquarters failed to take action on information from the Minneapolis FBI field office about suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui before the Sept. 11 attacks.
One of the federal sources noted, “This is not unprecedented in the bureau for there to be a failure of leadership in the D.C. area when the field points out a problem.”
Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.