Exclusive: Said Kouachi, one of the two brothers who massacred the staff at Charlie Hebdo, met with the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 in Yemen at an Al Qaeda camp east of the capital Sana’a, a Yemeni government official briefed on the terrorist investigation told Fox News.
The Yemeni official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed the 34-year-old Kouachi came to Yemen in 2011 to study at an Islamic institute and Arabic language center – the same center where John Walker Lindh, an American and Muslim convert arrested as an enemy combatant in Afghanistan, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab, also known as the “underwear bomber,” both studied.
While the investigation is still ongoing, the official said there is thus far no evidence Said and the underwear bomber knew each other.
The Yemeni official said Kouachi came to Yemen on a visa to study, but was kicked out of the institute, in part because he failed to show up for class.
In the spring or summer of 2011, al-Awlaki had moved out of the capital of Sana’a to the Al Qaeda camps for security reasons.
Al-Awlaki was the “talent spotter” for Al Qaeda in Yemen and, according to US government sources, the head of their external operations – including terror plotting. The training camp was described as makeshift, and “like roving bandits.”
Significantly, after he met with al-Awlaki, the Yemeni government official said there is no record Said Kouachi ever returned to Yemen, and they had no inquiries from the French or American intelligence services about the brother’s time in Yemen, suggesting the trip was successfully kept below the radar.
"This is the first significant foreign fighter case that we have seen where they travel to Yemen and back, trained under al-Awlaki," Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News. "One of the brothers actually funneled fighters to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is a precursor to ISIS." McCaul was referring to the younger brother, Cherif Kouachi.
Fox News has been told that the evidence increasingly points to the involvement of a foreign terrorist organization either inspiring or directing the attack. Less than an hour after the attack, Fox News was first to report on a series of tweets accompanied by images of three Al Qaeda members - Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and two American members of AQAP who were both killed in U.S. drone strikes, Samir Khan and al-Awlaki - went out, raising more suspicions the attack was an Al Qaeda plot.
Fox’s ongoing reporting on Al Qaeda in Yemen has shown that in October 2002 the cleric was in federal custody, and despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest on passport fraud, was released on the say-so of FBI Agent Wade Ammerman.
Shortly after al-Awlaki re-entered the US, he showed up in Ammerman’s investigation of Ali al-Timimi whose conviction is on appeal. In an August 2013 interview with Fox News, the outgoing director of the FBI did not deny there was an effort by the bureau to work with, and even recruit, the cleric as an asset.
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.