Why Did The Imam Befriend Hijackers?

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A troubling charge in Congress's joint 9/11 inquiry last month was that the FBI failed to investigate adequately Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American Muslim cleric who ministered to several of the hijackers. The FBI concluded al-Aulaqi was merely a spiritual adviser eager to assist followers, and an FBI official says, "I've heard no [further] interest [at the FBI ] in this guy." But the report quotes an FBI dissenter as saying, "There's a lot of smoke" surrounding his contacts with the hijackers. U.S. officials reportedly want further investigation.

Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, al-Aulaqi studied engineering at Colorado State University. Friends describe him as warm and adamantly nonviolent. But while living in San Diego he met with an ally of an Egyptian cleric imprisoned for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. The FBI investigated, closing the probe in March 2000. Two months earlier, two hijackers moved to the area. Al-Aulaqi, according to the joint inquiry, held "closed-door meetings" with them. When he moved to Virginia in early 2001, two hijackers followed. After 9/11, al-Aulaqi told the A.P. he didn't recognize any of the hijackers' names.

If the FBI revisits al-Aulaqi, it will have to do so overseas. In early 2002 he left for Yemen, partly because of a "climate of fear of intimidation," says Johari Malik, a friend. Malik says al-Aulaqi returned briefly last fall to liquidate his assets and adds: "If he was concerned about the feds, he wouldn't have come back."