Saudi Arabia

Did the CIA pressure Yemen to release al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki?

Recordings released by the Houthi government of Yemen raise new questions about Washington’s support for the same jihadist militants it has claimed to be waging war on.

(This report was originally published at Alex Rubinstein’s Substack page and has been edited by The Grayzone.)


The Moral Guidance Department, a branch of the Yemeni Armed Forces of the revolutionary Houthi government of Yemen, published a batch of secret documents and phone calls from the former regime of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh this March.

Two phone calls between former president Saleh and the former director of the CIA George Tenet were among the documents. A Yemeni government official has confirmed to me that the calls took place in 2001.

In the calls, the former CIA director can be heard pressuring Saleh to release a detained individual involved in Al Qaeda’s bombing attacks on USS Cole in October of 2000, which left 17 dead and 37 injured.

Tenet asks by Saleh’s translator about the name of the individual in question. “I don’t want to give his name over the phone,” the CIA director tells him.

Saleh notes that the FBI team tasked with the USS Cole investigation had already arrived in Sana’a, and asks Tenet if the FBI personnel could meet with him to discuss the matter. Tenet refuses, stating, “this is my person, this is my problem, this is my issue… The man must be released.”

“I’ve talked to everybody in my government; I told them that I was going to make this call,” Tenet says.

As Saleh’s translator is delivering Tenet’s message to the president, the CIA director interrupts and says that the man in question “must be released within 48 hours.”

“After 50 days, this must stop,” he says.

Major General Abdul Qadir al-Shami, the deputy-head of the Yemeni Security and Intelligence Service, told Houthi media that the person in question was dual American-Yemeni citizen imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, a top leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who was killed in Yemen in 2011 by a CIA drone strike.

Houthi media says al-Shami “pointed out that the Americans used to train their individuals in Yemen and send them abroad to carry out operations for them, and then affix the accusation to Yemen as an excuse to come under the cover of fighting those individuals.”

Though Awlaki appears to have collaborated in some capacity with the FBI, al-Shami’s allegations remain unconfirmed. Tenet’s comments nonetheless indicate the US had an asset among those arrested by Yemeni security services during its investigation of Al Qaeda’s USS Cole bombing.

Ali al-Ahmed of the Gulf Institute, a leading Saudi dissident and expert on the country’s politics, told me that he was not surprised by the phone call between George Tenet and Yemen’s former president.

“I’ve been saying this for a long time,” al-Ahmed told me. “People that think that these organizations; al-Qaeda, ISIS, are organic, non-state-backed organizations are either lying or are completely stupid. The fact that ISIS had all these American weapons, they didn’t come from thin air. This was part of a plan. The same thing with al-Qaeda; the fact that this organization which has been attacked all over the world continues to survive 20 years on, and spread, it’s not by accident. It’s done by security and intelligence organizations in Washington, D.C. and in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and by Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

“This recording,” he said, “fits the bill; that Anwar al-Awlaki and others, they were sometimes knowingly or unknown being used as a tool.”

The tenets of Tenet

George Tenet is the second-longest serving director of the CIA. Originally appointed by Bill Clinton, he oversaw the Bush administration’s response to the September 11 attacks.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Tenet was so successful in securing Saudi support against Osama bin Laden prior to the attacks that Clinton made Tenet “his informal personal representative to work with the Saudis on terrorism.” His task saw him make at least two trips to Riyadh.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Tenet authorized the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other torture methods.

Tenet told 9/11 investigators that he had not met with President Bush in the month prior to the attacks, but was later corrected by a CIA spokesman that same evening, who said he did.

A CIA Inspector General inquiry accused Tenet of failing to do enough to prevent the attacks, noting that “by virtue of his position, [Tenet] bears ultimate responsibility for the fact that no such strategic plan was ever created” despite the CIA’s awareness of the dangers presented by al-Qaeda.

George Tenet is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush

“Many of the difficulties that were listed in that report today – the inability to share information, the lack of people to support and run operations against Osama bin Laden – those were problems that were brought to Mr. Tenet’s attention as early as 1996 and he never did anything about them,” Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, told the BBC.

Tenet was “too busy schmoozing with foreign leaders… that he forgot that his job was to manage the intelligence community,” former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has said.

According to journalist Bob Woodward, who interviewed George Bush himself for his book “Plan of Attack,” Tenet and his deputy presented the president with satellite footage purported to show weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Unimpressed, Bush asked whether “this is the best we’ve got?” Tenet then leapt from the couch, raised his arms, and told the president it was a “slam dunk!”

When Bush challenged him again, Tenet repeated “The case, it’s a slam dunk.”

According to Woodward: “I asked the president about this and he said it was very important to have the CIA director – ‘Slam-dunk is as I interpreted is a sure thing, guaranteed. No possibility it won’t go through the hoop.’ Others present; Cheney, very impressed.”

Hijinks with the hijackers

Anwar al-Awlaki has been perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the so-called War on Terror. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Awlaki enjoyed free travel between Western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom and Yemen. He was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011, a likely-illegal targeted killing of an American citizen with little to no precedent.

Al-Awlaki’s name has appeared in connection with a plethora of terrorist attacks against Western targets and, beyond the now apparent ties he enjoyed with US intelligence, forged relationships with suspected Saudi intelligence officers.

According to a fellow student at Colorado State, al-Awlaki spent several summer breaks training with the US-funded and equipped mujahideen in Afghanistan, the precursor of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. The Afghan militants received some $20 billion in covert support from the CIA, with Osama Bin Laden benefitting at least indirectly, in order to topple a Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

By 1996, al-Awlaki was recruiting Muslims in the United States to take up arms in foreign lands as he encouraged a young Saudi student to “to travel to Chechnya to join the jihad against the Russians.” That student took his advice, and wound up being killed in 1999.

 

Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, was a Fulbright Scholar who studied in New Mexico and later worked for the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Anwar Al-Awlaki moved from Denver to San Diego and became the Imam at the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque. There, he held court with Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Hani Hanjour, all three of whom would go on to hijack the planes that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

According to the 9/11 Commission report, Hanjour’s older brother claimed Hani had gone to Afghanistan “in the late 1980’s, as a teenager, to participate in the jihad and, because the Soviets had already withdrawn, worked for a relief agency there.”

Even Ali al-Ahmed, a leading critic of Saudi Arabia, says the propaganda campaign promoting the mujahideen in Afghanistan confused him when he was very young. “It was part of a plan,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hazmi and Mihdhar had joined up with the Bosnian mujahideen following the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia, a conflict which saw the Clinton administration and the Pentagon oversee clandestine foreign arms shipments to Islamists fighting in the dirty war. Hazmi and Mihdhar were even granted Bosnian citizenship to fight there. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an Al-Qaeda leader and “principle architect of the 9/11 attacks” according to the 9/11 Comission Report, had “also spent time fighting alongside the mujahideen in Bosnia and supporting that effort with financial donations.”

As I have previously reported and was detailed in Max Blumenthal’s book, “The Management of Savagery,” the Brooklyn-based Al-Kifah Afghan Refugee Center served as “a front for Maktab al-Khidamat, an organization co-founded by Osama bin Laden.” During Operation Cyclone, the center was used by the CIA to send young American Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, and continued to be weaponized by the Clinton administration to recruit young fighters to the war in Bosnia.

“The Bosnian War drew extremists of all types from all over the world. The El Mujahid, the unit of foreign mujahideen fighters in Bosnia, videotaped themselves committing war crimes against Serbs including beheadings and torture,” Lily Lynch, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine, told me. “There are also reports that the mujahideen terrorized the local Bosniak population by making aid contingent upon radical conversion.”

“Unfortunately, much of the discussion of the crimes committed by El Mujahid in Bosnia has been led by Islamophobes with a wider political agenda, usually anti-immigration,” she continued. “This has prevented an honest and complete coming to terms with the crimes of the past, including those very real and documented crimes committed by the mujahideen.”

Al-Awlaki was under investigation by the FBI in 1999 and 2000 after the bureau learned he “may have been contacted by a possible procurement agent for Osama Bin Laden,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Additionally, al-Awlaki had “been visited by Ziyad Khaleel, an al-Qaeda operative who purchased a battery for Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, as well as by an associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called blind Shaykh.”

Around this period of time, al-Awlaki was the vice-president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a money-funneling front for al-Qaeda.

Among al-Awlaki’s most suspicious in San Diego was Omar al-Bayoumi. This figure also introduced him to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. In fact, al-Bayoumi met al-Midhar and al-Hazmi at Los Angeles International Airport after they arrived from Al Qaeda’s notorious “terror summit” convened in Malaysia by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Though the CIA had broken in to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi’s hotel room in Malaysia and photographed their passports, and the two had been surveilled by three governments at the request of the CIA before showing up in San Diego, Langley neglected to inform the FBI that the two had entered the US.

Al-Bayoumi was presented in the 9/11 Commission Report merely as a good-hearted individual who wanted to help fellow Saudis al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. However, the “28 pages” that had been left out of a joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and were declassified 13 years later following lobbying by victims of the terrorist attacks, strongly indicate that al-Bayoumi was a Saudi intelligence officer. Additionally, former US intelligence official Richard Clarke has speculated that he was also a CIA asset. The 28 pages note that the “FBI discovered that al-Bayoumi has ties to terrorist elements as well.

Al-Bayoumi, who was on the payroll of the Saudi monarchy via a third party company, set al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi up with an apartment. That very same day, four phone calls took place between al-Bayoumi and al-Awlaki.

Another “close associate” of al-Bayoumi and yet another suspected Saudi intelligence officer — and friend of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi — Osama Basnan, had been investigated by the FBI in 1993 for his support for Osama Bin Laden, contacts with the Bin Laden family, and holding a party in 1992 for “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman – another Afghan mujahideen figure who worked with the CIA and Osama Bin Laden. The Abdel Rahman died in prison in 2017 after being convicted for a role in a supposed plot to bomb the Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington Bridge. (As detailed in Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery,” the plot had been manufactured by a paid FBI informant, Emad Salem).

Money sent to Basnan by members of the Saudi Royal Family had made its way into al-Bayoumi’s pockets. The two had called each other “roughly 700 times” over the period of one year. Basnan later bragged to an FBI asset that he did more to help the 9/11 hijackers than al-Bayoumi.

News reports from 2003 note how “FBI officials continue to downplay any possible culpability on the part of Omar al-Bayoumi, Anwar Al-Awlaki or Osama Basnan.” Al-Bayoumi and Basnan’s extremism was not acknowledged by US authorities until the long-withheld 28 pages were released in 2016.

During al-Awlaki’s time in San Diego, when he wasn’t getting busted for cavorting with prostitutes or starting failed business ventures, he held frequent, closed-door meetings with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. They continued until he embarked on what he described to reporters as a “sabbatical” through “several countries” in 2000, the year that the USS Cole was bombed.

At some point in 2001, al-Awlaki resettled in Northern Virginia, and became the imam at a local mosque. He was followed by the three hijackers: Hanjour, al-Hazmi, and al-Mihdhar. An associate of his set them up with an apartment in Alexandria. Additionally, one accused key planner of the 9/11 attacks, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the so-called “20th hijacker” currently held in Guantanamo Bay, had al-Awlaki’s phone number in his personal contact list when his apartment was raided in the days following the attacks.

Freedom of Information Act requests have furnished the public with under-reported documents showing when the FBI investigated al-Awlaki’s Visa transactions, an entry for “Atta, Mohammed – American West Airlines, 08/13/2001, Washington, DC to Las Vegas to Miami” turned up. Mohammed Atta is widely described as the “ringleader” of the September 11 attacks.

The flight referenced was one of Atta’s so-called “surveillance flights.” Logs for flights of two more hijackers — one of the al-Shehri brothers and Satam al-Squami, also appear in the disclosed Visa investigation documents. The FBI has denied having evidence of al-Awlaki purchasing plane tickets for the hijackers.

By this time, al-Awlaki had become a celebrity imam, with up to 3,000 people regularly showing up for his Friday services, and with CD box set lectures circulating rapidly. He returned briefly to San Diego in August 2001 and reportedly told a neighbor, “I don’t think you’ll be seeing me… Later on you’ll find out why.”

One frequent attendee of al-Awlaki’s lectures was Gordon Snow, then-FBI Director of Counterintelligence for the Middle East. Snow had recently been “assigned to assessment, protection, and investigative support missions after the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen.” At the time, Al-Awlaki was also serving as the Muslim chaplain at Washington DC’s George Washington University.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “al-Awlaki was one of Washington DC’s go-to Muslim sources, considered a moderate Islamic voice with positive views of the United States and the West who did not shy away from publicly condemning Islamist terrorism and the 9/11 attacks” according to a research paper published by the Homeland Security Digital Library.  In highly-public remarks, he condemned the attacks. Days later, however, he gave comments to Islamic websites blaming Israel and claiming the FBI had placed the blame on any passenger on those flights with Muslim-sounding names.

Though it was not known at the time that al-Awlaki had been a “spiritual leader” of some of the hijackers, the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the Washington Post among others, went to him as their default Muslim voice.

“I think that in general, Islam is presented in a negative way. I mean there’s always this association of Islam and terrorism when that is not true at all, I mean, Islam is a religion of peace” he told the Washington Post as they recorded him from the passenger seat of his car in November 2001. In a subsequent video, al-Awlaki downplays the crimes of the Taliban, saying “the US is kind of demonizing the Taliban, and it’s true, the Taliban have made a lot of mistakes in the past, but the Northern Alliance isn’t really any better.”

Al-Awlaki being interviewed by the Washington Post

At around the same period, al-Awlaki became the first imam to conduct a prayer service in the US Capitol. Between September 15, 2001 and September 19th, 2001, the FBI interviewed al-Awlaki four times according to FBI documents.

“The FBI told the 9/11 Commission and Congress that it did not have reason to detain Awlaki,” according to a later article by the Washington Post.

Within months of the attacks and following a vetting process, al-Awlaki was invited to a luncheon with military brass at the Pentagon as a “moderate Muslim” to hold dialogue with as part of move to reach out to Muslim community members.

Despite his support in high places, al-Awlaki left the United States in 2002 with the Falls Church mosque citing a “climate of fear and intimidation.”

He spent the next years in the United Kingdom before returning to Yemen. But he made a stop back in the US in 2002, flying in on a Saudi Arabia Airlines flight with a Saudi agent accompanying him at the connecting airport on his way to JFK, according to law enforcement documents obtained by right-wing journalist Paul Sperry.

With an arrest warrant out on him for passport fraud, federal agents detained al-Awlaki upon his return. But a federal judge had rescinded the arrest warrant that very same day, allowing al-Awlaki to walk free.

He returned to northern Virginia and met with Ali al-Timimi, a radical cleric who was later arrested for recruiting 11 Muslims to join the Taliban. The two discussed plans to recruit young Muslims to taking up jihad.

But al-Timimi sensed the interactions were unusual, wondering “if Mr. Awlaki might be trying to entrap him at the FBI’s instigation,” according to his friends. Al-Awlaki left again on a Saudi flight without incident.

However, citing law enforcement documents, Sperry claimed that al-Awlaki had another warrant out for his arrest based on an investigation into terrorism financing by the US Treasury Department. That claim has been corroborated by government documents which reveal that FBI agent Wade Ammerman ordered that the warrant be bypassed.

By the time 9/11 Commission Investigators tried to interview al-Awlaki in 2003, they were unable to locate him, according to the report.

However, documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal that al-Awlaki was exchanging emails and voice messages with an FBI agent that year. One document has an FBI agent writing a colleague, “Holy crap, [redacted] isn’t this your guy? The [imam] with the prostitutes.”

Another document shows an FBI agent complaining about the 9/11 Commission’s “numerous and unrelenting” attempts to access al-Awlaki. A memo dated within days of al-Awlaki’s return to the U.S. to meet with al-Tamimi has al-Awlaki’s name in the subject line. One line in the memo referenced the preacher as follows: “Synopsis: Asset reporting.”

The Candide of Jihad

When al-Awlaki started preaching in London, his rhetoric took a decidedly more extremist turn, with frequent denunciations of non-Muslims and calls for martyrdom. He relocated to Yemen where he would lecture at a university in Sana’a run by Sheikh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindini, who was later designated a terrorist by the US and fought with Osama bin Laden, with U.S. support during Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan.

In 2006, al-Awlaki was arrested again in Yemen for participating in a al-Qaeda plot to kidnap a US military attaché and a Shia teenager. FBI agents would interview him in prison about the 9/11 attacks. Some U.S. officials were “disturbed at the imprisonment without charge of a United States citizen” and “signaled that they no longer insisted on Mr Awlaki’s incarceration, and he was released,” according to the New York Times.

Following his release in Yemen, al-Awlaki launched his own website. His heated online rhetoric now veered into open support for attacks against the United States. Before long, he was featured in videos published by al-Qaeda, earning him the moniker of the “bin Laden of the internet.”

Al-Awlaki’s name increasingly surfaced in connection to high-profile terrorist attacks on Western targets: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the perpetrator of a drive-by shooting on a US military recruiting office in Arkansas, claimed to be dispatched by AQAP and carried al-Awlaki’s literature; Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 and injured 30 at Fort Hood, had attended al-Awlaki’s lectures at the Falls Church mosque and exchanged up to 20 emails with him leading up to his attack (al-Awlaki later described Hasan as a “hero”); Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed “underwear bomber,” is believed to have met with him weeks prior in Yemen; a New Jersey man by the name of Sharif Mobley who killed a Yemeni hospital guard after he was captured in a raid against al-Qaeda had made contact with al-Awlaki and went to Yemen to seek him out; and the 2010 attempted Times Square bomber had contact with him.

Anwar al-Awlaki pictured with the so-called “underwear bomber.”

A full list of all the people arrested for trying to support al-Qaeda who had contact with al-Awlaki, or those who attempted to carry out terrorist attacks who were inspired by al-Awlaki, would be too long for this article. “Al-Awlaki’s sermons and recordings have been found on the computers of at least a dozen of [sic] terror suspects in the U.S. and Britain,” CNN reported in 2010. Al-Awlaki is considered to have helped inspire the Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, and the shooting at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub.

In 2010, al-Awlaki was placed on the US kill list, then made his way onto the Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, and finally, the United Nation Security Council’s list of individuals associated with al-Qaeda.

The following year, the CIA liquidated al-Awlaki with a drone strike, thus silencing a former agency asset.

“The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate. He took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” President Obama said at the time.

Two weeks after the killing of al-Awlaki, another drone strike ordered by Obama killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s American-born 16-year-old son. Six years later, President Trump ordered a commando-style military raid that killed Nawar al-Awlaki, the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar, along with several members of her family.

Nawar al-Awlaki before she was killed in a US military raid

Best frenemies forever

Yemen has suffered six years of devastating war since revolutionary Houthi forces took over the capital in September of 2014 from then-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi was the former vice president of longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime ally of Saudi Arabia. The war was exacerbated by the introduction of foreign forces and foreign air power to the conflict, most notably by the Saudi-led coalition’s entry on March 25th, 2015.

Six years on, the war has produced what experts have been calling the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, with the United Nations estimating that 80 percent of the Yemeni population in severe need of humanitarian assistance including 12 million children.

While the U.S. has repeatedly pounded AQAP in Yemen with bombs, they are not entirely enemies. The Saudi coalition, which the U.S. is a part of, is at war with the revolutionary Houthi government, and therefore shares a purpose in the country with al-Qaeda: expelling the Houthis from power.

“The coalition cut secret deals with al-Qaeda fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash,” the Associated Press reported in 2018. “Hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.”

“Key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes,” according to AP. In fact, the coalition actively recruits them because they are considered formidable on the battlefield, the outlet says before continuing to detail al-Qaeda figures playing key roles in major militias backed by the United Arab Emirates, another coalition partner.

And since the U.S. has sent billions of dollars in weapons to the coalition to fight the Houthis, it should come as little shock that al-Qaeda militias are parading around Yemeni city streets in U.S.-made MRAP armored vehicles.

Screenshot of CNN-obtained footage of the Abu Abbas brigade using U.S. MRAPS. The AQAP-linked militia was incorporated into the coalition despite its leader being a U.S.-designated terrorist.

Ali Al-Ahmed, the Saudi dissident and political analyst, told me that the US can justify its presence in Yemen by supporting al-Qaeda and then pointing to AQAP as a mortal threat to America.

“Al-Qaeda and ISIS would not survive without state support, including the U.S., and they do it because it serves their interests. Not the interests of the U.S., but of those in power and the companies that make money off this,” Al-Ahmed said.

To illustrate his point, he recalled how a Jordanian carpenter he knew was pressured and bribed to join al-Qaeda in their effort in Syria against the government of Bashar Assad, with American, British, and Jordanian intelligence officers offering him lucrative inducements to go.

The Jordanian was reluctant to go, so the intelligence officers eventually turned to threats. Eventually, he gave in, went to the battlefield and was quickly “taken out” upon his return, according to al-Ahmed.

“Al-Qaeda is like a whore, and everybody is sleeping with that whore,” al-Ahmed said.

Rune Agerhus, co-founder of the Yemen Solidarity Council, contributed to this report.

Alex Rubinstein is an independent reporter on Substack. You can subscribe to get free articles from him delivered to your inbox here, and if you want to support his journalism, which is never put behind a paywall, you can give a one-time donation to him through PayPal here or sustain his reporting through Patreon here.

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