EXCLUSIVE: The House Homeland Security Committee “has initiated an investigation” into the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and whether he was an overlooked key player in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a letter from the committee chairman to Attorney General Eric Holder says.
The three-page letter, obtained exclusively by Fox News, makes the case that a decade after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the full story of 9/11 has not been told.
“This congressional investigation will seek to determine:
"1. To what extent Anwar al-Awlaki wittingly or unwittingly facilitated the plot of the 9/11 hijackers; and
"2. to what extent al-Awlaki was an al Qaeda operative, offering support to acts of terrorism prior to 9/11.”
The letter to Holder, sent by Republican Rep. Peter King of New York on May 26, confirms that investigators believe the American cleric's contacts with three of the five hijackers on Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon, were more than a series of coincidences, but rather evidence of a purposeful relationship.
“Given the greater collection of intelligence and integration of pertinent data since the attacks of 9/11, I believe that al-Awlaki may have played greater roles in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as well as other terrorist plots, than those of which we have been previously aware," King writes. "Accordingly, I request the full assistance of the Department of Justice in carrying out this inquiry.”
The hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were the first two hijackers into the U.S. – arriving in January 2000 at Los Angeles International Airport. One question always puzzled investigators: Why would the self-described architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, send two of his most experienced operatives, who spoke virtually no English, to the ghetto of San Diego unless there was someone there to meet them.
As part of the Fox News Specials Unit's ongoing investigation of the cleric, the executive director of the 9/11 commission Philip Zelikow confirmed that his investigators were highly suspicious of al-Awlaki and his relationship with the hijackers in San Diego.
“We put the spotlight on Awlaki about as brightly as we could, and as brightly as any government agency could,” Zelikow said, adding that he was always surprised the media did not immediately pick up on their suspicions about al-Awlaki’s role when the final 9/11 report was issued in 2004.
In “The American Terrorist,” which profiled the cleric’s life in Colorado, Southern California and Virginia before 9/11, Fox News confirmed through documents and interviews that al-Awlaki met on a regular basis with the two hijackers al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar in San Diego in 2000. It was in a small anteroom above al-Awlaki's mosque with a single entryway. One of al-Awlaki’s closest associates, a Yemeni, Mohdar Abdullah helped the hijackers find a place to live and find jobs in San Diego.
By early 2001, al-Awlaki moved to a new mosque in Falls Church, Va., where hijacker al-Hazmi seemed to follow him. After they finished their flight training in Arizona, al-Hazmi and pilot Hani Hanjour attended services at al-Awlaki’s mosque.
In Virginia, as seen in Fox News' "The Secrets of 9/11," the same pattern seen in San Diego was repeated. Al-Awlaki’s Virginia associate, this time a Jordanian, Eyad al-Rababah, helped the hijackers settle in Alexandria before driving the men to Paterson, N.J., where they rented an apartment and connected with three other hijackers.
By May 2002, the New Jersey landlord reported six men were living in a one room apartment, according to the 9/11 Commission report. All of them were hijackers. Soon, a seventh hijacker would join them, Khalid al-Mihdhar, who also knew al-Awlaki from the San Diego mosque.
The House committee investigation is seeking “all documents ... in the possession of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or any other DOJ entity or component” that pertain to al-Awlaki and seven other individuals, including his associate in San Diego Mohdar Abdullah and his associate in Virginia Eyad al-Rababah who directly aided the hijackers.
In addition, it is seeking “files, reports, analysis, assessments, memoranda, notes and presentation in all forms” that are related to long-closed FBI investigations of al-Awlaki in 1999. In that case, the San Diego terrorism task force was investigating an alleged link between al-Awlaki, Usama bin Laden and a “known procurement agent named Ziyad Khaleel…(who) had previously purchased a satellite phone for (bin Laden).”
The tone of the letter and the materials being sought suggest that the congressional investigation believes there is compelling evidence that al-Awlaki may have been Al Qaeda from the beginning, and that his rise to an operational commander in the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, considered the most active, was not a surprise but rather a logical progression.
“With years of hindsight into al-Awlaki’s growing status within al Qaeda, including his involvement in the Christmas Day attack in 2009, there exists the critical need to reexamine the facts surrounding al-Awlaki and the 9/11 attacks,” the letter states.
In addition, King's committee is requesting immediate access to certain witnesses, including people on terrorism task forces in San Deigo, New York City and Washington, D.C.
A spokesman for King would not comment beyond the contents of the three-page letter, which requested the documents and witnesses by June 17.
A Justice Department spokesman confirmed the letter had been received. Nothing has yet been turned over to the committee, and the department is still working with FBI to respond.
National Correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" was published by Crown on June 21st. It draws on her reporting for Fox News into al-Awlaki and his new generation of recruits – al Qaeda 2.0. It is the first book to full investigate al-Awlaki’s American life, his connections to the hijackers, and how the cleric double crossed the FBI after 9/11.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.