The American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, considered by some to be one of the most wanted terrorists behind Usama bin Laden, was educated in the United States with taxpayers money, an ongoing Fox News investigation has found.
Awlaki, now believed to be recruiting for Al Qaeda from hiding in Yemen, is connected to at least two recent suspected terrorism cases – the Fort Hood attack and the attempted Christmas Day jet bombing.
A former diplomatic security agent who was tasked with investigating Awlaki immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks told Fox News that the Yemeni-American national apparently lied on his visa application to attend Colorado State University, where he studied engineering. Rather than tell U.S. immigration officials that he was born in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1971, Awlaki stated that the was foreign born, the security agent, Ray Fournier, said.
Awlaki received $20,000 in scholarship money from a U.S. government program for his schooling in Fort Collins, Colo. When asked if Awlaki was eligible, Fournier said, “No, he is absolutely forbidden to have it.”
"That's the taxpayers' money," Fournier added, saying Awlaki knew that lying about his birthplace would help him get the scholarship money.
A spokesperson at Colorado State University confirmed that Awlaki listed himself as an international student during his years there. The school would not comment on his financial records citing privacy issues.
Fournier came across the scholarship information as part of a larger investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, based in San Diego, in the months following 9/11. He says a large team of agents worked together tirelessly to find a reason to arrest or detain the American-born cleric because of his ties to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.
The task force was “a robust group of individuals,” Fournier said. “We had ATF, DEA, local and state organizations, California Department of Motor Vehicles, to the Social Security Administration, the INS and the FBI…about 70 people.”
Awlaki was of special interest to the task force because he was the iman at the Rabat mosque in San Diego from 1996 to 2000 where the two hijackers worshipped.
“He would meet with these two -- al-Hazmi and al Mihdihar -- in a small ante-room off the main floor,” Fournier told Fox News, adding that the contact was on a regular basis. “The two terrorists had a special relationship with the imam where they met frequently, in private meetings, after Friday prayers.”
Fournier was asked to specially look into passport and visa fraud. The Diplomatic Service, where Fournier worked at the time, is the law enforcement branch of the State Department.
“I traveled to New Mexico. I went through the Bureau of Vital Statistics records and secured his birth certificate," Fournier told Fox News. “Clearly he was born here. It (the birth certificate) looked valid to me. There was nothing out of the ordinary. His parents were here as graduate students at New Mexico State University at the time.”
Other agents also recall that Awlaki surfaced again and again in their cases in the months after the attacks. Former Customs Agent David Kane told Fox News that Awlaki is now a significant and emerging threat because he is American, he speaks English and he uses the Internet as a bridge to reach inside the U.S.
“He's using the Internet to maintain contact and to recruit people," Kane said. “He's progressed to become one of the most influential figures within Al Qaeda."
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.