Imam talks jihad on social media

CAIRO, Egypt — The Yemeni-American imam who's been under renewed scrutiny after the deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, preaches against alcohol, birthday parties, black magic and extramarital sex. He also supports armed struggle — jihad — against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has encouraged extremist insurgents in Pakistan and Somalia.

None of that sets Anwar al-Awlaki, 38, apart from other militant Sunni Muslim clerics — and even many mainstream ones — in the Middle East. Awlaki uses digital means to spread his views, however, through a blog, lectures on YouTube and Facebook pages with more than 1,000 fans.

American-born and popular with young Westernized Muslims, Awlaki preaches mainly in English and drops pop-culture references, invoking Michael Jackson in a sermon on death or the parable of a marijuana-smoking Muslim who turned his life around.

Awlaki's teachings, however, also reportedly have inspired suspects in a number of high-profile international cases: two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, alleged militants accused of planning to blow up targets in Toronto, several Somali-American youths who died while fighting in Mogadishu, and, most recently, the Muslim Army major who's charged with killing 13 people in the Fort Hood rampage Nov. 5.

In the past year, U.S. investigators say, Awlaki corresponded several times with Maj. Nidal Hasan. The investigators deemed the exchanges benign, consistent with research Hasan was conducting on Muslims in the military. Awlaki himself, purportedly speaking through an intermediary to the Washington Post, said this week that he'd answered only a couple of the dozen or so e-mails Hasan sent him.

Incendiary sermons

Awlaki was under FBI investigation after the 9/11 bombings, but concerns surrounding him today appear to be based, at least publicly, more on his incendiary sermons than on solid evidence establishing a link to militant groups. Despite several brushes with terrorism suspects — allegedly by phone, e-mail and in U.S. mosques — Awlaki hasn't been charged with a terrorism-related crime and the only time he's apparently spent in jail was in Yemen in connection with a tribal dispute, according to news and court accounts.

Awlaki's militant message and wide audience made him a subject of interest for U.S. intelligence agencies nearly a decade before the Fort Hood shootings.

Back then, Awlaki wasn't hard to find. He served as imam to 3,000 Muslims at a mosque in suburban Virginia, held an online chat on the Washington Post's Web site in which he answered questions about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and granted several news interviews. In a report just after 9/11, the New York Times held up Awlaki as an example of a "new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West."

The FBI, however, was investigating Awlaki's activities and connections. The cleric moved to Yemen in 2002, presumably to be out of reach of U.S. authorities.

It's unclear whether FBI agents turned up much of concern in their investigations of Awlaki. Suspicions about him in government reports are padded with qualifying terms. Two of the 9/11 hijackers "reportedly respected Awlaki as a religious figure," the 9/11 Commission concluded. Awlaki's encounters with a suspect in San Diego "may not have been coincidental," wrote investigators for the congressional joint inquiry on 9/11.

FBI officials were quoted as saying that Awlaki was an important recruiter for al-Qaida and had been contacted by an associate of Osama bin Laden, though no evidence was provided and U.S. authorities haven't charged Awlaki with any crime.

'9/11 loose end'

"He's a 9/11 loose end," 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow told McClatchy. Zelikow added that one of his frustrations with the 9/11 investigation was its inability to determine what Awlaki's relationship was to the hijackers who turned up at Awlaki's mosques in San Diego and then again in Falls Church, Va.

Commission investigators traveled to Yemen in 2004 but were unable to interview Awlaki, though precisely why was unclear.

In Yemen, Awlaki's activism again drew interest. He took a teaching position at a university led by a cleric who was put on the U.S. terrorism watch list in 2004. Yemeni authorities detained Awlaki for a year and a half over his arbitration of a tribal dispute, but he said in interviews after he was released that the United States had orchestrated the arrest and that FBI agents had questioned him about the Sept. 11 attacks and other topics while he was behind bars.

Awlaki was released from the Yemeni jail in 2007. He went underground in recent weeks, with his blog disabled and Yemeni authorities looking for him, according to Yemeni news reports.