WASHINGTON – The Obama administration added a U.S.-born, al-Qaida-linked cleric to a terrorism blacklist Friday, targeting him with sanctions aimed at cutting off his financial support.
The Treasury Department placed Anwar al-Awlaki — accused by officials of helping plan the failed Christmas Day airline bombing — on its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. That means any bank accounts found in the United States belonging to him are frozen. Americans are forbidden from doing business with him. And, it bans him from traveling to the U.S.
The move comes about six months after the U.S. government put al-Awlaki on a secret list of targets to be captured or killed, according to U.S. officials.
Born in New Mexico, al-Awlaki, 39, is not perceived by American officials as a major tactical terror leader on par with al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. But his role as an inspirational exhorter for al-Qaida's cause and his growing involvement in plots aimed at the U.S. has made him a prime target in the effort to counter the militant movement.
The U.S. government has been monitoring al-Awlaki for years. But the Treasury Department was able to slap the cleric with sanctions because officials established an operational link between him and an al-Qaida spinoff group in Yemen, according to a government official who was not authorized to speak publicly about this matter and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Despite ties to two of the 9/11 hijackers and the Fort Hood gunman, al-Awlaki has avoided terrorism charges over the years because he never crossed the line into being an active member of al-Qaida — someone who recruits and trains terrorists and plots attacks on the U.S.
But that changed with his involvement with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young recruit to al-Qaida's nascent Yemen branch, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
The nearly disastrous airline attack was both an embarrassing intelligence failure for the U.S., and a coming-out of sorts for al-Awlaki, who is not considered one of the top figures in al-Qaida's Yemen branch. But officials said Christmas boosted his profile as well as that of the terror group. The Christmas attack was the first time an al-Qaida spinoff proved it could attack the U.S.
Al-Awlaki has proven he's dangerous and committed to carrying out deadly attacks on Americans and others, and he encourages supporter to donate money to terrorist causes, said Stuart Levey, the under secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department.
"He has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism — fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents," Levey said.
Al-Awlaki was imprisoned in Yemen in 2006 on charges of kidnapping for ransom and playing a role in a plot to kidnap a U.S. official, Levey said. He went into hiding when he was released from prison.
Since pledging an oath of loyalty to the terror group's Yemen branch, he has helped coordinate training at terror camps, Treasury said.
Members of al-Awlaki's tribe in Yemen have denied he is connected to al-Qaida despite a video posting calling for the killing of Americans. In the 45-minute video, al-Awlaki said U.S. deaths are justified and encouraged, citing what he said was U.S. intentional killing of a million Muslim civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo and Jeannine Aversa contributed to this report.