The dusty minarets that pierce through the haze in San’a, Yemen are certainly a long cry from the gleaming monuments that make up the D.C. skyline. But as it is now widely believed, one former GW student left the District to engage with al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric with ties to 9/11, the Fort Hood shooting, and the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, attended GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development in 2001 and was the assistant to a Muslim chaplain on campus during his time in D.C.
“Al-Awlaki was a part-time doctoral of education student and took classes at GW in 2001. Additionally, Mr. al-Awlaki was an assistant to a Muslim chaplain who was a member of the Interfaith Board of Chaplains during his time at the University. The group dissolved in 2003,” Emily Cain, associate director of media relations for GW, said in an e-mail.
Muslim Student Association President Azra Ali Hyder declined to comment, citing that the MSA is far removed from al-Awlaki and thus “would not be able to provide any insight into the matter.” In 2005, then-president of the GW Islamic Alliance for Justice and MSA board member Amin Al-Sarraf told The Hatchet that al-Awlaki had a very “uninvolved role.”
Born in New Mexico in 1971, al-Awlaki spent part of his childhood in Yemen before returning to the U.S. to continue his education. During this time, he reportedly gave counsel to the men who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on 9/11. According to the 9/11 Commission, the terrorists onboard Flight 77 “respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him.”
Following the attacks, al-Awlaki fled to Yemen. In 2008 he began corresponding electronically with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychiatrist who shot and killed 13 fellow soldiers at a base in Fort Hood, Texas last November.
“[Hasan] asked whether or not killing American soldiers and officers is lawful or not,” al-Awlaki said in a 2009 interview with Al-Jazeera. Al-Awlaki later praised Hasan for the murders and called him a “hero” on his Web site, which has since been deleted. Al-Awlaki told Al-Jazeera that the two met years earlier at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in the Northern Virginia community of Falls Church. The center could not be reached for comment.
Hasan’s journey also passed briefly through GW. Hasan attended Homeland Security Policy Institute lectures on campus between June 2008 and February 2009. HSPI Director Frank Cilluffo told The Hatchet that Hasan “participated in some of the meetings as an audience member” but that he has “no affiliation [with HSPI], and was not a member of the task force.”
More recently, al-Awlaki has been linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it flew from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. During an interview with FBI officials, Abdulmutallab said he met with al-Awlaki and other al-Qaida members during a trip to Yemen last year and that al-Awlaki was involved in providing “religious justification” for the act, the Los Angeles Times reported.
According to a Reuters report, a Yemeni official said al-Awlaki may have been killed during an air strike in Yemen in late December, but a friend of the cleric, Abu Bakr al-Awlaki, told The Associated Press he was not among those killed.