Awlaki Visited the Pentagon in 2001: Was This A Security Failure?

SPY Historian Mark Stout

A story breaking in the news recently highlights the difficulty of knowing who-is-who in the murky worlds of intelligence, security, and terrorism.  It also shows the difficulty of seeing the future, a core aim of the intelligence analyst.

Fox News has reported and other media outlets have confirmed that radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki, dined at the Pentagon in the months after 9/11 as part of the Defense Department’s effort to reach out to American Muslims.  Awlaki, of course, some ten years ago preached at a mosque in San Diego and then at the Dar al Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church Virginia.  At both of these he came into contact with some of the 9/11 hijackers.  More recently, he has been linked to Ft. Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Times Square bomber Feisal Shahzad.  Awlaki is presently thought to be in Yemen working with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  He has been widely reported to be on a list of Americans whom the CIA can kill abroad without trial.

Fox News quotes an anonymous former high-ranking FBI official as criticizing Awlaki’s invitation to the Pentagon by saying that as of 2001 there was a great “arrogance” about the Pentagon’s procedures for vetting who they would allow in the building: “They vetted people politically and showed indifference toward security and intelligence advice of others.”

There are two problems with such a criticism. 

First, in outreach and diplomacy, as in espionage, one often has to deal cooperatively with people with whom one does not fully agree.  Given Awlaki’s public persona in 2001, it was not unreasonable to reach out to him.  There are many precedents for such a policy.  During the Cold War, the CIA conducted an extensive and long-running campaign of reaching out to the “non-Communist left” in Europe as a way of co-opting them from allying with the Soviets.  The US Government also made common cause with Communist Yugoslavia, Romania, and China against the Soviet Communists.  For their part, case officers often have to deal with unsavory people in their efforts to get information about other even more unsavory people.  By the same token, the police routinely work with informants and prison snitches who are not typically nice people themselves. 

Second, it is important to remember that in 2001 the Pentagon could not know the place that Awlaki would have in the terrorist world in 2010.  Forecasting the future is hard and Awlaki has undergone an ideological evolution over time.  At the time of 2001 he was sufficiently moderate to head a mainstream mosque and to impress a Pentagon employee who heard him speak.  (The FBI documents that Fox News obtained showed that this was the proximate cause of his invitation to the Pentagon.)  This is the man who told visitors to his mosque after 9/11 that “we came here to build not to destroy…We are the bridge between Americans and one billion Muslims worldwide.”  Awlaki himself at one point was even criticized from within the jihadist movement for being insufficiently radical.  Now, however, he is one of the leading lights of the jihadist movement, a radical firebrand if ever there was one.

In short, the future is hard to predict, identities can change over time, and deception is an ever present possibility.  With 20/20 hindsight we can criticize past analyses and past decisions, but that’s not always helpful…or fair.

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