Can America de-friend his “Facebook friends from hell”?
Anwar al-Awlaki “is a clear and present danger. He inspires those who commit violence. In some cases, he blesses their missions. In almost every case, he never meets the jihadist in person. Al-Awlaki is a virtual recruiter,” Fox News Correspondent Catherine Herridge wrote in her recent book The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda’s American Recruits. Now that the American-born al-Awlaki has been killed in a missile strike in Yemen, where stands the threat of “the next wave”? Herridge takes questions from National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What does the successful CIA-led strike on the American Anwar al-Awlaki mean?
CATHERINE HERRIDGE: The cleric’s death is not the end of al-Qaeda 2.0. He was a digital jihadist, and his legacy lives on in the virtual world. Based on feedback from my intelligence and military contacts, The Next Wave is more relevant now than ever before. It makes the case that al-Awlaki’s American followers are part of al-Qaeda’s next act. They are the “Facebook friends from hell” who leverage social networking to spread their ideology of hate.
That said, the Obama administration should be given full credit for embracing and expanding — through the drone campaign — the counterterrorism toolbox established by the Bush administration. Based on reaction from the ACLU and others, the strike was not popular with the president’s supporters on the left, but it seems the Obama White House put national security over political interests.
LOPEZ: In your book, you are deeply personal about the War on Terror and what it means to you and your family. In keeping with that: What was your initial reaction when you learned of his death?
HERRIDGE: As a military mom with a husband facing another deployment, I can’t help but be relieved the cleric is off the battlefield. That said, I am troubled by any administration — Republican or Democrat — that acts as judge, jury, and executioner for an American citizen overseas. If the evidence is as strong as the White House maintains, then the Obama administration should live up to its promise of transparency and release it to the public.
LOPEZ: Why has he always been a focus of yours?
HERRIDGE: After the Fort Hood massacre two years ago, I was asked a simple question by a sharp writer at The Fox Report with Shepard Smith: Why have Americans old enough to remember 9/11 turned their back on their own country and joined al-Qaeda? The question gave me pause. Virtually every investigative thread led to the cleric al-Awlaki and his digital jihad.
LOPEZ: I know he had ties to 9/11 hijackers, but was there enough of a connection to get a guy killed?
HERRIDGE: Based on my reporting, U.S. and Yemeni intelligence had a good idea where the cleric was at least a week before the strike. If that was truly the case, it begs the question, “Why didn’t we pick him up?” It would be good to know why.
Al-Awlaki would be a central witness in the Fort Hood case. He could explain his e-mail relationship with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan — the accused shooter. Al-Awlaki would also be an important witness in the case of Ali al-Timimi, whose conviction for inciting jihad is on appeal. Fox’s reporting showed that al-Awlaki’s questionable connection to an FBI agent was withheld from al-Timimi’s defense team.
Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I believe in preserving evidence, and that includes witnesses.
LOPEZ: How should Anwar al-Awlaki go down in history? Do we even know?
HERRIDGE: Al-Awlaki’s death is not the end of al-Qaeda 2.0. Though over time, I predict the cleric’s importance will be diminished. Undoubtedly, some of his pathetic followers will see him as a martyr.
As for al-Qaeda in Yemen, the key leadership remains intact, including Ibrahim al-Asiri, who, according to U.S. officials, is one of the best bomb makers working today. This guy is so ruthless he used his younger brother as a mule for a suicide operation.
It’s worth remembering that in 2002, the CIA launched its first strike in Yemen and decimated the al-Qaeda leadership there. An American was also killed. Less than seven years later, the group reconstituted itself and launched the attempted bombing on Christmas Day. It was only by sheer luck that the detonator failed.
LOPEZ: Do you feel any vindication now?
HERRIDGE: The CIA-led strike validated the findings of our Fox Specials Unit and its two-year investigation of Anwar al-Awlaki. He was a national-security threat.
Without naming names, I believe some news organization and government institutions were reluctant to acknowledge our original reporting because they were taken in by the cleric after 9/11 and portrayed him as a moderate.
Privately, on the military-intelligence side, I have been thanked for laying out the case against al-Awlaki in a public way.
LOPEZ: What questions do you wish he could have been asked? What remains unasked and unknown now that he can’t be questioned?
HERRIDGE: Was Anwar al-Awlaki an overlooked key player in 9/11? Our Fox team was the first news organization to make a compelling case that the cleric was part of a U.S. support network that facilitated the hijackers. Our reporting was document-driven, with recently declassified memos from the 9/11 Commission and phone and banking records. Other news organizations are now recycling stories we broke months ago. Our Fox team is flattered.
Why has the FBI director been allowed to stonewall members of Congress over the bureau’s handling of the al-Awlaki case? Certainly, the FBI must answer to someone?
In October 2002, an FBI agent, Wade Ammerman, ordered the cleric’s release from Customs at JFK International, even though there was an active warrant for al-Awlaki’s arrest. Fox’s reporting — that the Bureau tried to make the cleric an intelligence asset in the fall of 2002 or followed him for intelligence purposes — has never been publicly challenged.
I have deep respect for the Bureau and the hard work of its agents, which often goes on unnoticed. But consider the simple fact that if the Justice Department and FBI had prosecuted al-Awlaki on the passport-fraud charge in 2002, the CIA-led strike, the Fort Hood massacre, and other acts of domestic terrorism might have been avoided.
LOPEZ: Do the FBI and Justice Department still have some real questions to answer about how the heck he was in custody in 2002 and then let go? Should there be some kind of investigation?
HERRIDGE: To expand on my previous answer — the FBI and Justice Department should not be allowed to blow off the House Homeland Security Committee, which launched an official investigation in May. The committee is questioning whether al-Awlaki was al-Qaeda from the beginning and part of the 9/11 conspiracy. Despite a June deadline, my contacts confirm that not a single document or witness has been made available to Rep. Peter King’s committee.
Republican congressman Frank Wolf wants the FBI to explain why key documents about al-Awlaki and his release from federal custody in 2002 were likely withheld from the 9/11 Commission. At a hearing in April, FBI Director Mueller promised to look into the Congressman’s question, adding that if the documents were not provided to the 9/11 Commission, it was a mistake. But three months later, Wolf’s staffers were told that the FBI director considered the matter closed.
Congressmen Wolf and King want to reconstitute the 9/11 Commission in order to evaluate the progress toward implementing its recommendations and to examine emerging national-security threats, including domestic radicalization. Part of the rationale is to look specifically at the Awlaki issue and his handling by the Bureau and others after 9/11.
It is not about assigning blame. We expect the FBI to cultivate relationships with unsavory characters. But why not share the October 2002 incident with Congress? Why wasn’t it shared with the 9/11 Commission? We want to learn from our mistakes so they will not be repeated with profound consequences.
LOPEZ: Are you surprised by the debate about whether or not killing him was justified? About whether or not he really had any power?
HERRIDGE: No, I am not surprised by the debate. It is healthy and necessary. Unfortunately, with al-Qaeda 2.0, I predict more Americans will make the CIA kill-or-capture list in the future.
There appears to be a fundamental disconnect in administration policy. By putting the cleric on the CIA list, the president and Justice Department are acting as judge, jury, and executioner for a U.S. citizen. At the same time, the Obama administration wanted to transfer the 9/11 suspects, who tried to plead guilty at Guantanamo, to a federal court in New York City where they would enjoy the presumption of innocence and the full constitutional rights of an American citizen. While there are important differences — al-Awlaki was in hiding, and the 9/11 suspects were in custody — the White House logic is hard to square.
LOPEZ: How many New Mexican natives are intent on killing Americans? How worried are you about the threat of domestic-grown terrorists?
HERRIDGE: While it is anecdotal, I believe there is a generational divide. This area of my reporting has drawn significant interest from the intelligence community and those who study the issue.
A decade ago, we believed there needed to be person-to-person contact — kind of the mentoring thing — for an individual to cross the threshold to violence. I believe the generation that has grown up with social networking is wired differently. After Fort Hood, the view within the intelligence community seemed to shift. They asked, “Can you cross the threshold to violence in a virtual way?”
LOPEZ: We just hit the ten-year mark on the 9/11 attacks, of course. Do we have what happened in the right perspective? Do we know what it is it was and how to prevent it from happening again?
HERRIDGE: I will always remember the jumpers. They are the Americans who leapt to their deaths from the Twin Towers. They faced a stark choice. They could be burned alive or jump. A decade later, we must ask ourselves why we sanitize 9/11. Those horrifying pictures are rarely shown.
A few years ago, my husband and one of his Marine buddies went toArlington Cemetery to hook up with “40 of their friends,” as he described it to me over breakfast. It was only later in the day that I realized they were referring to their Navy and West Point classmates buried there. As a military-family member, I think it’s important to be real about the cost and the threat.
In the Kindle edition of The Next Wave, one phrase is highlighted more than any other. It reads, “Terrorism is like water. It takes the path of least resistance. You move one way and it moves another. It is a thinking enemy.”
What al-Qaeda fails to realize is that we are more determined and resilient than they are.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.