Published January 19, 2010
SAN'A, Yemen – A radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric suspected of ties to Al Qaeda is in hiding in the remote mountains of Yemen under the protection of his tribe as he seeks to elude a manhunt, relatives and tribesmen say.
Anwar al-Awlaki's run from authorities is the culmination of what U.S. and Yemeni officials say is the charismatic cleric's slide toward terrorists.
They say al-Awlaki, who once preached in mosques in California and northern Virginia and posted fiery English-language Internet sermons urging Muslims to fight in jihad, is now an active participant in Al Qaeda's offshoot in his turbulent ancestral homeland.
Al-Awlaki has been connected with the alleged perpetrators of two recent attacks on American soil: the Nov. 5 shooting rampage at the Fort Hood army base in Texas and the attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet as it landed in Detroit on Christmas Day.
His family and many members of his powerful Awalik tribe deny the 38-year-old is a member of Al Qaeda, depicting him as a victim of Yemeni and U.S. persecution. The Yemeni government is negotiating with tribal leaders, trying to convince them to hand al-Awlaki over to authorities, two prominent Awalik sheiks told The Associated Press.
One sheik said authorities have offered guarantees they would not turn al-Awlaki over to the United States or let American officials question him if he surrenders.
"Anwar is in a safe place, and the tribe is standing behind him because he has nothing to do with Al Qaeda," one of the sheiks told AP by telephone from Shabwa province, the rugged region of towering mountains and deep, nearly inaccessible valleys where al-Awlaki is hiding.
The two sheiks spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi last week denied any government negotiations with the Awalik tribe.
Al-Awlaki's direct role in Al Qaeda — if any — remains unclear.
He rose to prominence as one of the few English-speaking radical clerics able to eloquently explain to young Muslims in America and other Western countries the philosophy of violent jihad and martyrdom against the West and its allied Muslim and Arab governments.
But U.S. intelligence officials believe he has now become an active operative in Al Qaeda and has performed activities beyond those of a cleric, senior defense officials in Washington said. They declined to say what those activities were and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Yemeni security officials said they suspect he is involved in recruiting new members and in dealings between Al Qaeda fighters and Yemeni tribes.
In the months before the Fort Hood attack, al-Awlaki exchanged up to 20 e-mails with the alleged shooter, U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki's Internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.
Al-Awlaki has said he did not tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, in which 13 people were killed, but later praised Hasan as a "hero" on his Web site for killing American soldiers who would be heading for Afghanistan or Iraq to fight Muslims.
Yemen's government says al-Awlaki also is suspected of contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen late last year.
Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi said the cleric may have met in Shabwa with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other Al Qaeda leaders, in the weeks before the failed bombing. U.S. officials say Abdulmutallab has told FBI investigators that Al Qaeda members in Yemen provided him with the explosives and trained him in how to use them.
The deputy prime minister said Al-Awlaki was also believed to be at a gathering of senior Al Qaeda figures in the mountains of Shabwa on Dec. 24 — a day before Abdulmutallab tried to blow up the airliner.
Also in attendance were the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, Naser al-Wahishi, and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, he said.
Before dawn, Yemeni warplanes, using U.S. intelligence help, struck the meeting site — a collection of tents near a farm and water pump tucked in the Rafad valley. However, al-Awlaki, al-Wahishi and al-Shihri are believed to have left the site hours earlier in two vehicles, al-Alimi said. The government says 30 other militants were killed.
The meeting would be the most concrete tie between al-Awlaki and Al Qaeda militants.
Awalik tribal leaders insist al-Awlaki was never at such a meeting and say Yemeni authorities have raised the allegations only to please the United States in their increasing security cooperation aimed at uprooting Al Qaeda's offshoot here.
"The Yemenis know they have nothing on him. It's the Americans who want him in jail," one of the most prominent Awalik chiefs, Sheik Saleh Farid, told AP.
Since the airstrike, al-Awlaki has been on the run in the region. A prominent Awalik sheik, Awad bin Wazir, told AP that local residents have reported sighting drone aircraft over the area, apparently involved in the hunt for al-Awlaki or other fugitive Al Qaeda suspects. U.S. military officials have refused to comment on whether American surveillance drones are operating in Yemen.
Shabwa's governor, Ali al-Ahmadi, said forces in the area were looking for al-Awlaki — though the military presence here remains thin. Al-Awlaki is moving with a group of al-Qaida elements from Shabwa, including Fahd al-Quso, accused by the U.S. of a role in the 2000 USS Cole bombing off Yemen's coast, al-Ahmadi told the pan-Arab newspaper Sharq al-Awsat.
Al-Wahishi and al-Shihri are with another group of militants, believed to be around the nearby Jebel Kour mountain, he said.
The region — dominated by the Awalik tribe — is one of the most daunting in Yemen: A long, imposing mountain plateau of limestone peaks that rise more than 3,000 feet between the sand dunes of the Rub al-Khali desert to the north and the plains of Yemen's Arabian Sea coast to the south.
The thick belt of mountains is inhospitable, with only occasional hamlets in the creases of valleys and nomads who live in tents. Roads are few, and the military or security forces hardly ever enter the region.
It is a world away from the American suburbs where al-Awlaki first made his name as a radical preacher.
Al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico. His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, was in the United States studying agriculture at the time and later returned with his family to Yemen to serve as agriculture minister. The father remains a prominent figure in Yemen, teaching at San'a University.
The younger al-Awlaki returned to the United States in 1991 to study civil engineering at Colorado State University, then education at San Diego State University, followed by doctoral work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
While in San Diego, he preached at a local mosque, where in 2000 he met two of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. The U.S. government's Sept. 11 Commission report says the men "respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him." They were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
He later became a preacher at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director for the center, has said al-Awlaki never exhibited signs of radicalism in his time there.
"He had an allure. He was charming," Abdul-Malik told reporters soon after the Fort Hood shooting. "To go from that individual to the person that is projecting these words from Yemen is a shock."
"I don't think we read him wrong. I think something happened to him."
Al-Awlaki's recorded sermons are still sold at stores catering to Muslims in Falls Church — though not the ones focused on jihad or politics. At one supermarket, a 22-CD set of his speeches gave long dissertations on religious issues, including descriptions of the afterlife, stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, and dream interpretations.
But sermons posted on the Internet since al-Awlaki returned to the Yemeni capital, San'a, in 2004 have a more political tone.
Yemeni authorities arrested him in 2006 with a group of five Yemenis suspected of kidnapping a Shiite teenager for ransom. Al-Awlaki was accused of being the group's spiritual leader and issuing a religious decree permitting them to kidnap foreigners and rich Yemenis. He was released without trial after a year in prison following the intercession of his tribe.
In a long sermon first posted on YouTube in early 2007 titled "Allah is preparing us for victory," al-Awlaki painted a history of the conflict between Islam and the West — and accused the United States of waging war against Muslims. He described the evolution of jihad by Palestinian militants and suicide bombers as well as in Iraq, Pakistan and Iraq.
"Palestine is what gave to shahada (martyrdom) the importance that it has today. The concept of shahada and istishhad (seeking martyrdom in jihad) started in Palestine," he said.
He dismissed Muslims who say "the way forward for the Umma (Islamic world) is to distance themselves from terrorism" and make progress in business and technology.
"The Rasoul (Prophet Muhammad) says that it is false ... and Allah will dishonor us if we do that. The Rasoul says there is no way out for you unless you go back to your deen (religion)," he said. "Going back to your deen means going back to jihad specifically. So this is the solution."
Canadian Muslims arrested in 2006 for allegedly forming a training camp and plotting bombing attacks in Toronto listened to al-Awlaki's online calls for jihad, according to the case against them in court. An al-Awlaki sermon on jihad was also among the materials — including videos of beheadings — found on the computers of five men convicted in December of plotting attacks on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
In January 2009, al-Awlaki posted on his Web site a tract entitled "44 ways to defend jihad," urging Muslims around the world to support Islamic fighters by raising money or helping their families — and he said those who are able should join the battle.
"Asking Allah to die as a shaheed (martyr) pleases Allah because it shows him that you are willing to give your life for him. But you need to be careful not to be merely paying lip service. A person who truly asks for shahada (martyrdom) would respond to the call of jihad whenever he hears it and would eagerly search for death in the path of Allah," he said.
After his release from prison in San'a, al-Awlaki moved to the Awalik tribal heartland in Shabwa, settling in his family home in Saeed, a tiny hamlet that is little more than a string of houses and fields high in the mountains, said Sheik Farid, the senior Awalik chief, who is a cousin of Anwar al-Awlaki's father.
There he lived quietly, preaching in the local mosque at times, Farid said.
"He is very active as a preacher, including on the Internet," he said. "But he has nothing to do with Al Qaeda. I know him very well. He's like one of my own sons."
Farid said authorities contacted him soon after the Fort Hood attack and asked him to persuade al-Awlaki to return to San'a, where the government could keep a closer eye on him.
"I called Anwar and told him, please do it, go to San'a or Aden. But he said, 'I'm not going to let the government tell me where to live,"' Farid said.
The sheik said al-Awlaki fled into the mountains soon afterward, fearing he would be arrested. Farid said he did not know if al-Awlaki was traveling with Al Qaeda militants. "But anyone who is scared, who is forced to, will go with the devil if he has to," he said.
Farid said that if the authorities promise not to try to arrest Anwar, "I can convince him to come live with me."
Nasser al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki's father, told CNN last week that "our tribe is protecting him now," and insisted his son is not associated with Al Qaeda. "I am now afraid of what they will do to my son. He is not Usama bin Laden, they want to make something out of him that he's not," he said.
"He's been wrongly accused, it's unbelievable. He lived his life in America, he's an all-American boy," he said. "Now he's hiding in the mountains, he doesn't even have safe water to drink."