Exclusive | Ray Suarez: My Post-9/11 Interview With Anwar al-Awlaki

RAY SUAREZ: I remember the Sheikh very well. Producer Carol Blakeslee and I visited an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Va., that was vandalized in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the large mosque in Falls Church, Va., where Maj. Hasan worshipped and Anwar al-Awlaki served as imam. Though the papers have called him a “fiery Yemeni cleric” and the like, it is important to remember al-Awlaki was born in the United States, and educated here and in the Arab world. So, unlike many imams serving in the United States, he was fully bicultural, fully familiar with life in United States, and spoke English with only the slightest tinge of an accent from the many years he had spent outside the United States.

Along with the time we spent with al-Awlaki at the mosque, we also visited his home, and drank tea and snacked on nuts and dried fruit while seated on the carpet in his comfortable, book-lined basement in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. A tall man, the imam had to fold his long bony legs like a grasshopper to join me on the floor. We talked about world history, U.S. relations with Muslim countries, and speculated on how the coming era would be shaped by the terror attacks. Remember, the ruins in lower Manhattan were still smoldering, American forces hadn’t yet invaded Afghanistan, and the long struggle in Iraq was far in the future.

In our conversations, the preacher mentioned that he and other members of the mosque had already been contacted by government investigators. He talked about the possibility of returning to Yemen to continue his studies and raise his young family there. He was uncompromising in his view that the United States had much to answer for in the Islamic world, that there was an explanation for much of the anti-American hostility in countries with Muslim majorities, and that the U.S. needed to change its approach just as much as Muslims did. I was not surprised when, in the months after our interview, it was reported that he had returned to Yemen, complaining of harassment from the U.S. government.

While talking of his feelings of grievance, he chose his words carefully. Very carefully. One could walk away from the Friday sermon, or from the interview, struck by how in his rhetoric he could dance right up to the edge of condoning violence, taking the side of anti-American forces in the Muslim world, and then, just as carefully, reel it back in, pulling the punch, softening the context, covering the sharp-edged scalpel of his words in a reassuring sheath.

When the cameras were not rolling he was also interested in quizzing me, noting it was only fair after I had been interviewing him for much of the day. We jousted verbally, in a friendly way, about religion and history. Away from the energy of the pulpit, or the grievance expressed in the interview, al-Awlaki had an almost playful sense of humor. Tall, ramrod straight, he was someone who bore watching, I thought. Apparently, so did the U.S. government. In the intervening years I visited his blog from time to time, and saw that his rhetoric had become bolder. He was still careful in what he said and how, leaving the more overtly violent, threatening and anti-American rhetoric to the subscribers from around the world who posted comments there.

Editor’s Note: Background on al-Awlaki and his relationship with Hasan:

In the ongoing investigation into the Fort Hood massacre, questions have been raised over the relationship that the suspected gunman had with al-Awlaki. The Associated Press describes the New Mexico-born al-Awlaki, 38, as “a radical American imam who communicated with the Fort Hood shooting suspect and called him a hero” on his Web site.

Al-Awlaki, who was born to Yemeni parents, preached at a Virginia mosque that Hasan’s family attended. The imam also had several encounters with al-Qaida figures. In 2000, he met two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, at a San Diego mosque where al-Awlaki preached. The 9/11 Commission report says the men “respected al-Awlaki as a religious figure and developed a close relationship with him.” They were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

In 2002, al-Awlaki returned to Yemen and taught at a university headed by a prominent cleric who was often described as a religious mentor to Osama bin Laden. He was arrested in 2006 in Yemen on suspicion of giving religious approval to militants to conduct kidnappings, but investigators were unable to prove any links to al-Qaida, and he was released in late 2007, two Yemeni counterterrorism officials and an Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press.

His father told the AP that he disappeared eight months ago. Authorities in Yemen are hunting for al-Awlaki once again, and security officials say they believe he is hiding in an area of the mountainous nation that has become a refuge for Islamic militants.

You can watch more about the al-Awlaki interview later this week on the NewsHour.

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