“We came here to build, not destroy. We are the bridge between America and 1 billion Muslims worldwide.”
As the rubble and human remains of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon lay smoldering a mere five miles down the road, these words rang forth from the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.
The imam who spoke in apparent horror that day was Anwar N. Aulaqi, a man who also served as the GW Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) chaplain during the fall of 2001. But Imam Aulaqi was adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. According to the Washington Post, Aulaqi described 9/11 as “an attack on American foreign policy” and suggested on Islamonline.net that Israelis may have been the true 9/11 hijackers in the week following the attack. Despite such rhetoric, it appears few knew that at least two of the 9/11 hijackers had worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah and developed significant relations with Anwar Aulaqi over the course of nearly two years. This connection has led many to question whether Aulaqi, a young and respected imam once responsible for ministering to students at GW, had knowingly aided and abetted the 9/11 terrorists in their murderous plot.
Connection with a possible Saudi spy
The beginning of that relationship takes us to California where Aulaqi first made contact with two al-Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who would one day crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. On February 4, 2000, four phone calls were placed between Aulaqi’s phone and the phone of a man named Omar al-Bayoumi who spent that day securing the financial and living arrangements of the two would be hijackers. The 9/11 Commission Report details al-Bayoumi’s claim that he met the 9/11 hijackers–by chance–in a restaurant on February 1. Only a few days later on February 4, he wrote the hijackers a $9,900 certified check (in exchange for cash) that they needed to open a bank account and place a deposit on an apartment in San Diego.
Although the 9/11 Commission regards al-Bayoumi as a devout Muslim unaware of the hijackers’ plans, the New York Times has noted that the separate 9/11 Congressional intelligence report reveals that “one of the F.B.I.’s best sources in San Diego informed the F.B.I. that he thought that al-Bayoumi must be an intelligence officer” for the Saudis. It further states that al-Bayoumi “had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that the money flow “increased significantly after Mr. al-Bayoumi came in contact with the two hijackers in early 2000.”
A 3,000 mile coincidence
While it is unknown what Aulaqi and the possible Saudi spy discussed on February 4, the 9/11 hijackers struck up a relationship with Aulaqi shortly after establishing themselves in an apartment near his mosque outside San Diego. The 9/11 Commission Report states that the two future hijackers developed a deep respect for Imam Aulaqi as a spiritual leader during closed door meetings they had with him. One has to question whether the hijackers would have associated with an unsympathetic imam as they prepared themselves spiritually for “martyrdom.”
During the summer of 2000, Aulaqi left his San Diego mosque and had relocated to Falls Church by January 2001. There he began preaching at Dar al-Hijrah mosque and studying at GW’s human resources development doctoral program, according to Paul Sperry’s controversial new book Infiltration. Further increasing suspicion surrounding Aulaqi, 9/11 hijacker Hazmi-now accompanied by 9/11 kamikaze pilot Hani Hanjour-relocated to Falls Church just three months after Aulaqi had settled in.
And then came a day of fire
The 9/11 Commission Report states that Aulaqi’s Falls Church mosque became a particular point of interest shortly after September 11, when it was learned some hijackers had worshipped there. Aulaqi was interviewed by the FBI during the month of September and claimed to recognize the pictures of some of the hijackers but not their names. In addition, Aulaqi denied that he was in contact with the hijackers in Virginia, a statement now believed to be false. Despite Aulaqi’s denials, both FBI agents and the 9/11 commissioners suspect that Aulaqi helped the 9/11 hijackers in Virginia by tasking a member of his mosque to find the hijackers an apartment in Alexandria.
Prior to September 11, members of the GW MSA asked Imam Aulaqi to serve as the MSA chaplain after hearing of Aulaqi’s local fame as a talented leader, thinker and orator. Amna Rani, a GW MSA executive board member in 2001, informed me that Aulaqi’s involvement with the MSA was fairly limited. Aulaqi became close with a couple of students who could not be reached for comment. Other than attending a meeting or two with the GW board of chaplains, Rani stated that Aulaqi only taught a course on Muhammad for a few weeks after 9/11. He then stopped his ministry to GW students altogether without explanation. However, Aulaqi continued to frequent GW’s campus, taking doctoral classes until the end of the fall 2001 semester.
As the 9/11 investigation progressed, the FBI wanted to bring Aulaqi in for further questioning but lacked evidence to do so. According to US News and World Report, “FBI sources say agents observed the imam [Aulaqi] allegedly taking Washington-area prostitutes into Virginia and contemplated using a federal statute usually reserved for nabbing pimps who transport prostitutes across state lines.” The FBI’s plans fell apart when Aulaqi left the country for Yemen in March of 2002.
Paul Sperry reveals, however, that Federal agents got a second chance to detain Aulaqi, when he returned to America purportedly to liquidate his assets on October 10, 2002. Aulaqi popped up on the terror watch list when he entered New York’s JFK Airport due to a separate suspicion of fundraising for Islamist terrorists. But Aulaqi was released after a few hours because the warrant to detain him had been removed by government officials the day before his arrival on October 9, 2002. A mere two months later, the chagrined FBI would reopen its investigation of Aulaqi after the 9/11 Congressional report was released.
Today, Aulaqi’s whereabouts are unknown, although he is suspected of remaining in Yemen. At this time there is not enough evidence to charge Anwar Aulaqi as a 9/11 conspirator in an American court. Indeed, it is possible that he was unaware of the 9/11 plot. In a phone interview, Aulaqi’s friend and fellow imam at Dar al-Hijrah, Johari Abdul Malik, contended that the connections between Aulaqi and the hijackers lack any substance: “If someone goes to a James Brown concert in California, and then goes to a James Brown concert in Virginia, and then commits murder six months later; it doesn’t make sense to accuse James Brown of murder.”
But there is reason to be especially suspicious of Aulaqi’s story. At the very least, he has had a history of running with the wrong crowd. His ties range from the 9/11 hijackers to HAMAS leaders and heads of major terrorist financing “charities.” As early as 1999, the FBI had briefly investigated Aulaqi after learning he may have been contacted by a procurement agent of Osama bin Laden. Further, the 9/11 Commission Report contends that hijackers “Hazmi and Mihdhar were ill-prepared for a mission in the United States,” concluding that it is unlikely the two “would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival.”
Currently, the GW MSA is looking for a new chaplain. MSA President Mehdi Alhassani informed me that the MSA executive board is solely responsible for selecting the new chaplain and will make sure to examine candidates carefully. Unlike Anwar Aulaqi, Mehdi Alhassani is unequivocal in his denunciation of terrorism: “Anybody who was involved in 9/11 attack, we completely condemn them-We as Muslims aren’t caught in the middle between terrorism and America. Terrorism is the enemy of Islam. Those terrorists are killing Iraqi children, Egyptians, Moroccans-they don’t care who they kill.”
While Aulaqi’s guilt or innocence may never be established, one thing is clear in the war against Islamist terrorism: We need a lot more Mehdi Alhassanis and a lot fewer Anwar Aulaqis.