In the early morning hours of October 10, 2002, Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious al Qaeda operative, was detained by U.S. Customs agents when he arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City after a flight from Saudi Arabia. At the time, he was a prime suspect in the 9/11 attacks and had been placed on terrorist watch-lists. Nevertheless, the Bush Justice Department directed Customs to release him. That decision enabled Awlaki to continue his jihadist campaign against the United States until he was finally killed in Yemen last September, in an American drone attack.
For nearly a decade since Awlaki was permitted to go free at the airport, the government has maintained that he was released because an arrest warrant for him, based on a 1993 felony passport fraud charge, had been vacated before his arrival, due to insufficient evidence. The government has suggested, moreover, that sheer coincidence explained the dismissal of the fraud charge right before Awlaki showed up at JFK: just a random assessment that a case was too weak, made by prosecutors and investigators who were unaware of Awlaki’s imminent arrival.
Now, Fox’s Catherine Herridge breaks the news that the government’s story is untrue. In House testimony this week, a top FBI official admitted that the Bureau and federal prosecutors knew Awlaki was about to return to the United States before he arrived at JFK. Furthermore, it emerged at the House hearing that the passport fraud warrant had not been vacated when Awlaki was briefly detained. The warrant remained valid and pending; it could have been used to arrest him. Instead, the Justice Department intervened to “un-arrest” him. With apologies extended by federal agents to both Awlaki and the Saudi government representative conveniently on hand to assist him, the terrorist was sprung.
I would also throw this into the hopper: The Justice Department’s rationale for dismissing the warrant is fatally flawed. Awlaki should have been arrested and prosecuted on the passport violation in 2002.
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