America’s ‘known wolf’ jihadist problem: Why haven’t we learned from our mistakes?

Muhammad ud-Deen | Greg A L | Wikimedia Commons

Conservative Review, by Benjamin Weingarten, April 20, 2017:

One of the more disturbing and dangerous trends in American national security is the proliferation of “known wolves” — jihadists who are able to commit terrorist attacks against our homeland in spite of the fact that they are on law enforcement’s radar.

This issue is becoming so commonplace that literally in the midst of drafting this piece, news broke of one such potential figure. Kori Ali Muhammad murdered three innocents in Fresno, California during a rampage in which he reportedly screamed “Allahu akbar.” In spite of authorities characterizing his attack as a hate crime rather than terrorism, Muhammad certainly appears to have been a “known wolf”, with local news sources reporting not only a criminal background but a history of “making terrorist threats.”

More chilling were the revelations detailed in a recent episode of 60 Minutes concerning the would-be terrorists known to the FBI who attempted to shoot up the 2015 “Draw Muhammad” cartoon event held in Garland, Texas. The show’s investigators found that an undercover FBI agent working with the pair of jihadists had urged one of them to “Tear up Texas,” and was in an automobile directly behind them in the moments leading up to their failed attack. Maddeningly, the agent apparently did not attempt to intervene and prevent the potential massacre.

But perhaps the most infamous known wolf of all is Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was an American citizen who would become one of the leading jihadist clerics and al-Qaeda recruiters in the world before being assassinated via drone in Yemen in 2011.

Awlaki’s name has surfaced in connection with a FOIA lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch of great importance and relevance as a new administration grapples with how to defend America from the jihadists within.

Judicial Watch filed suit against the FBI in order to force the agency to produce records relating to its investigation of Awlaki, given his confirmed connection to several 9/11 hijackers.

Fox News recently released images captured by the FBI stemming from this investigation that show Awlaki being surveilled on the same day in February of 2002 as he spoke at a conference at the Pentagon on “Islam and Middle Eastern Politics and Culture.”

The fact that Awlaki — who was interviewed by the FBI at least four times in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks due to his known ties to three of the hijackers — was invited to speak at a Department of Defense luncheon intended to serve as a forum for Muslim outreach alone is unsettling.

But the story gets worse:

The FBI documents confirm the imam was under bureau surveillance as part of the “IT UBL/Al-Qaeda” investigation, but the information was not shared with the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel, which sponsored the 2002 Pentagon lunch.

The high-level FBI surveillance – including specialized teams, as well as video and photos – also calls into question the bureau’s explanation regarding a decision eight months later, in October 2002, by FBI agent Wade Ammerman. While Awlaki was held by Customs officers at JFK airport because of an outstanding warrant for the cleric’s arrest from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, Ammerman told Customs to release him. The FBI has maintained Ammerman’s actions were routine. 

Meanwhile, the FBI has been reluctant to divulge details of the Awlaki investigation.

As the Fox News report notes:

The FBI first released blurry ‘Xerox’ copies in 2013 of the photos with poor resolution. Chris Farrell, director of Judicial Watch investigations, said they sued the bureau for more because Awlaki had confirmed contact with the 9/11 hijackers in San Diego and Virginia.

“The FBI continues to obstruct and delay the production of records concerning their investigation of the dead terrorist spiritual leader of the 9/11 hijackers –Anwar Awlaki,” Farrell said…

Farrell said the FBI released screen grabs but refused to release the surveillance videos. “Almost 16 years later [after 9/11 attacks], how are the interests of the American public served by the FBI’s legal gamesmanship and excessive redactions?” he said.

This is a valid question that Congress ought to take up in earnest.

The American people also deserve to know the answers to several other pertinent questions:

  • How is it that an individual could be investigated for terrorist links at the same time he was invited to speak to U.S. government defense officials in an outreach capacity?
  • Can the FBI report of any other analogous instances in which this has occurred?
  • What steps has the FBI taken to ensure that figures like Awlaki under FBI investigation are not actively consulting with U.S. government authorities, whether formally or informally?
  • In outreach efforts under the government’s countering violent extremism paradigm, is the FBI contacted to ensure that partners have been vetted for terrorist ties and are not the subject of current or past investigation, a la Awlaki?
  • Does the FBI believe it committed any additional errors in connection with its handling of its investigation of Awlaki? If so, what are they, and what measures has the FBI taken to ensure they will never be made in the future?

In formal remarks delivered by DHS Secretary John Kelly on April 18 on threats facing America, Sec. Kelly devoted substantial space to the issue of “Homegrown Terrorism,” which includes known wolves like Awlaki.

If we do not have an open and honest accounting of past failures on this count, we cannot hope to correct them in the future.

Given the great damage inflicted by the countering violent extremism project —- whereby the U.S. government outsourced its counterjihadist policies to the very Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups responsible for purging the materials and figures best-equipped to orient our policies towards the Islamic supremacist threat (some groups of which may directly constitute the threat themselves) — time is of the essence if we are to change course and keep the homeland safe.

Ben Weingarten is Founder & CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication services firm. A graduate of Columbia University, he regularly contributes to publications such as City Journal, The Federalist, Newsmax and PJ Media on national security/defense, economics and politics. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.