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FBI refutes claims it suspected al-Awlaki role in purchasing 9/11 hijackers' tickets

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In this Nov. 8, 2010 file photo taken from video and released by SITE Intelligence Group, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites. (AP)

The FBI is refuting claims it suspected, less than a month after the 9/11 attack, that the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had purchased airline tickets for the 9/11 hijackers. 

FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright cited a redacted FBI 2003 chronology titled "working draft chronology of events for hijackers and associates" to reinforce that the hijackers purchased their own tickets for cross-country surveillance flights in August 2001 and for another Florida flight in July of 2001. Wright pointed to four references citing bank/and or credit card transactions linked to the hijackers. 

In one citation for the August 2001 cross-country flight, which the 9/11 Commission report describes as one of the hijacker's surveillance flights, the chronology reads: "Mohammed Atta purchase of airline ticket; internet purchase." 

The documents, which were previously released two years ago as the result of a separate records request, challenged claims by watchdog group Judicial Watch that newly obtained documents unearthed suspicions that al-Awlaki was involved in buying the tickets. Atta was the ringleader of the hijackers, and among the terrorists Judicial Watch claimed al-Awlaki may have bought a ticket for. 

"The FBI and investigating bodies have not found evidence connecting Anwar Al-Awlaki and the attack on 9/11/2001. The document referenced does not link Anwar Al-Awlaki with any purchase of airline tickets for the hijackers," Wright said. 

On Thursday, Judicial Watch claimed a highly redacted FBI document written 16 days after the attack indicated the American cleric purchased the tickets. The government watchdog took the FBI and State Department to court in June 2012, after filing Freedom of Information Act Requests for documents related to the American-born cleric after he was killed in a CIA drone strike September 2011. 

The group said: "According to a September 27, 2001, FBI transcription, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit,  al-Awlaki (al-Aulaqi) purchased airline tickets for the following 9/11 hijackers: Mohammed Atta, America West Airlines, 08/13/2001, for a flight from Washington, DC, to Las Vegas, Nevada, to Miami, Florida. S. Suqami, Southwest Airlines, 07/10/2001, for a flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Orlando, Florida. Al-Sheri, National Airlines, 08/01/2001, for a flight from San Francisco, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada, to Miami, Florida." 

The heavily redacted, six-page document summarizes a series of credit card and flight searches by the bureau on Sept. 26, 2001, describing them as "possible matches only" and saying the results were emailed to an FBI agent and filed on a CD. In addition to querying credit cards used by at least three other hijackers, the document states: "Query any reservations involving Anwar Nasser Aulaqi and/or Visa credit card." 

The immediate section below the query is redacted, citing privacy and information compiled for law enforcement purposes.  Then the document lists "Atta, Mohammed - American West Airlines, 08/13/2001, Washington DC to Las Vegas to Miami.  Suqami, S. - Southwest Airlines, 07/10/2001 Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando.  Al-Sheri, W. - National Airlines, 08/01/2001, San Francisco to Las Vegas to Miami." 

The immediate section following is fully redacted, until a new entry says a "check for credit cards used by (hijacker) Ziad Jarrah." 

Among the newly released documents are FBI searches of al-Awlaki flights and overseas phone calls as well as redacted summaries of the FBI's interviews with the cleric. He was interviewed at least four times by the Bureau in the first eight days after the attack. In one of the interviews, "Al-Awlaki (Aulaki) further advised that he was not familiar with any of the hijackers." 

It is documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, though, that two of the hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar worshipped at the cleric's small San Diego mosque in 2000. The 9/11 Commission Report also documents that al-Hazmi worshipped at the cleric's new mosque in Virginia the following spring. 

In the 2003 chronology provided by the FBI, there are four citations for the Atta flight in mid-August 2001. Three of them show the ticket was paid for by a SunTrust account. The fourth citation, in which Atta appears to buy another ticket from Las Vegas, gives no method of payment. Asked to reconcile the four citations, an FBI spokeswoman said the document was a chronology, adding that not every entry would be expected to include a payment method. 

The redacted FBI 2003 chronology also states that on two separate occasions, when hijacker Hani Hanjour left Arizona, he gave his forwarding address as al-Awlaki's new Virginia mosque. 

In response to the FBI, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton released a statement Friday saying: "The FBI can clear up the matter by releasing the full document. It is a shame that we had to sue to get this basic information about the 9/11 attacks. The FBI spin should, accordingly, be taken with a grain of salt. This document was given to us by the FBI in response to a request about al-Aulaqi, so it is interesting that we are now told that the hijacker's information disclosed in this document has nothing to do with him. Of course, Mr. al-Aulaqi was killed on orders of the president, so no one can pursue this inquiry with al-Aulaqi." 

As part of its ongoing investigation of the cleric, Fox News was first to report in the special "Fox News Reporting - The Secrets of 9/11," broadcast in September 2011 that the cleric appeared to be an overlooked key player in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 

Fox News was also first to report that the cleric was a guest speaker on moderate Islam at a Pentagon executive dining room in February 2002.

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.