Did Awlaki Really Help the 9/11 Hijackers?

What Judicial Watch and Fox News got wrong about al Qaeda's leading English-language ideologue.


UPDATE: Fox News on Friday afternoon filed a “follow-up” (as opposed to a “correction”) in which the FBI denied the claim that Awlaki bought tickets for the hijackers, specifically citing the previously released document reported here Thursday.

What a scoop! Fox News, reporting from documents released by Judicial Watch, has claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue, may have purchased three pre-hijacking airplane tickets for some of the 9/11 hijackers.  Judicial Watch was even less circumspect in describing its findings.

According to the story by Fox News Washington correspondent Catherine Herridge:

The heavily redacted records — obtained by Judicial Watch through a Freedom of information Act request — suggest the FBI held evidence tying the American-born cleric to the hijackers just 16 days after the attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

“We have FBI documents showing that the FBI knew that al-Awlaki had bought three tickets for three of the hijackers to fly into Florida and into Las Vegas, including the lead hijacker, Mohammad Atta,” Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, told Fox News.

There are only two problems with this story.

First, there’s a paragraph of type redacted in between the mention of Awlaki and the mention of the hijackers.

Plenty of room there to start another heading.

Second, all three tickets are attributed to known debit cards held by the hijackers that do not match the card number given for Awlaki in Judicial Watch’s bombshell-smoking-gun-gate FOIA document.

The attributions appear in an FBI chronology of the hijackers’ activities also obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, by this reporter, as part of a collection of 9/11 documents posted online years ago and featured by Fox News itself in a special on 9/11 a while back.

That chronology was assembled long after the Sept. 26, 2001, document obtained by Judicial Watch. So even if the document says Awlaki bought the tickets — and it’s by no means clear that it does — it would still represent a very early lead, compared to the 2003 chronology, by which time mistakes would have been weeded out.

While it’s not completely impossible that the chronology was part of some vast and nefarious coverup, to make the case being made by Judicial Watch and Fox, you have to go well past simple suppression of this explosive allegation against Awlaki and argue that the FBI actually falsified documents to support a claim that no one knew about at the time the chronology was compiled and at the time it was released, and that it then inexplicably let the cat out of the bag in a later FOIA request. That’s asking a bit much.

While certainly no one can be expected to hold the whole of the 9/11 investigation in their short-term memory, the hijackers’ finances were painstakingly reconstructed and dissected in the 9/11 Commission and elsewhere, and that large-scale fact is easy enough to remember and check. It’s unfortunate, because Herridge is typically a solid reporter.

Awlaki’s links to Sept. 11 certainly bear further investigation, but when you investigate, you have to be prepared for the possibility that the truth will be a big letdown. And there’s plenty of precedent for that in the Awlaki saga.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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