Awlaki's emails to terror plotter show operational role


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Rajib Karim, from the London Metropolitan Police's website.

Two days ago, a British court convicted a Bangladeshi-born British Airways employee of terrorism charges, including plotting a "spectacular" airplane bombing. The plotter, Rajib Karim, who had begun working for the airline company in 2007, led a double life. Outwardly, he appeared to be an ordinary computer expert. Secretly, however, Karim harbored extremist beliefs and made propaganda videos for Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) -- a known terrorist organization.

While working at British Airways, according to a profile published online by London's Metropolitan Police, Karim "worked with his younger brother Tehzeeb Karim and other associates to raise funds for JMB, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations who were then involved in the insurgent activity in Iraq, in the border areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and also in the [sic] Yemen."

In December 2009, Tehzeeb Karim traveled with two others from Bangladesh to Yemen, where he met with al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Tehzeeb told Awlaki about his older brother and the two began emailing in short order.

"We need men who are willing to go all the way and not hold back anything from Allah," Awlaki told Karim, according to the Mirror (UK). Awlaki continued: "The religion of Allah cannot be given victory by part-time service. This is not a weekend religion. The contract is to sell our souls to Allah. The compensation is paradise."

Awlaki's words were clearly intended to inspire Karim to action, but excerpts of the cleric's emails reveal that his role went far beyond rhetorical support. The emails and other information linking Karim to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were discovered on Karim's laptop, which was protected by extensive cyber security.

According to the Daily Mail (UK), Karim used some of the "most sophisticated" encryption tools British authorities have ever seen to mask his communications with various nefarious personalities, including Awlaki. Investigators found that Karim used a "Russian doll system," which "hid his terrorist plotting behind at least eight layers of disguise and encryption."

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Anwar al Awlaki, from a jihadist website.

Once authorities cracked Karim's security, they found a series of emails to and from Awlaki. Excerpts of the emails have been widely reported by the British press.

On Jan. 25, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim, telling him that "depending on what your role is and the amount of information you can get your hands on, you might be able to provide us with critical and urgent information and may be able to play a crucial role for the ummah."

Awlaki continued [emphasis added]:

I was pleased when your brother conveyed from you salaams to myself and was excited by hearing your profession. I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems, what procedures would travellers [sic] from the newly listed countries have to go through, what procedures would a person on a watch list have to go through?

Karim sent a reply to Awlaki, whom he addressed as the "prof," on Jan. 29, 2010. Karim complained about having to live "with the kuffar" (disbelievers) and said he "desperately" wanted to leave.

As for his specific knowledge of the airline industry, Karim explained [emphasis added]:

I have knowledge about the key people in BA [British Airways] starting from the top management and the key people in BA IT department. I also have knowledge about key IT hardware locations, which if targeted can bring huge disruption to flights and cause BA a major financial loss ... but this would be at the risk of exposing myself as I will have to do that with my own login ID....

I personally know two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practising brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen and do not slander them. They are of the type who would help with money and moral support but I am not sure if they are at the stage to sacrifice with their lives.

On Feb. 13, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim again. This time Awlaki probed Karim's ability to get a bomb or suicide bomber on board a plane headed for the US, and he also encouraged Karim to take a job on a flight crew. Awlaki wrote [emphasis added]:

Our highest priority is the US. Anything there, even if on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US? If that is not possible, then what ideas do you have that could be set up for the uk?

...You should definitely take the [cabin crew] opportunity, the information you could get would be very useful.

Karim emailed his brother on Feb. 15, 2010: "If it's not a good idea to visit you guys, then I intend to visit BD or USA. If I visit USA, I can check out what their security process is like."

Karim also replied to Awlaki on Feb. 15, saying he was willing to work on a US-focused plot. Karim also suggested that they launch a cyber attack on British Airways. "If full damage can be inflicted," Karim speculated, "that would mean cabin crew would be stranded in different parts of the world, planes will be grounded and it will be total chaos."

Karim explained to Awlaki that he was trying to convince others to participate in his plot [emphasis added]:

I have started working on the bros I mentioned on the last letter without mentioning you directly. Alhamdulillah the bros responded better than I expected...

Like you say, I also agree that US is a better target than UK, but I do not know much about US. I can work with the bros to find out the possibilities of shipping a package to a US-bound plane.

As Awlaki's emails with Rajib Karim show, the al Qaeda cleric played a direct role in the airliner plot. Awlaki encouraged Karim to attack the US, settling for an attack on the UK only as a backup.

Awlaki explored Karim's ability to get a "package" (that is, bomb) on board a US-bound plane. This possibly foreshadowed AQAP's late 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. In that foiled attack, AQAP attempted to detonate two bombs shipped via cargo jetliners.

Awlaki also wanted Karim to discuss "limitations and cracks in present airport security systems" as well as the "procedures...a person on a watch list" would have to go through.

More than a charismatic preacher

US counterterrorism analysts and intelligence professionals initially focused on Awlaki's ability to inspire others to commit acts of terrorism. Over time, they have come to realize that Awlaki is directly involved in AQAP's plotting.

Awlaki's emails to Karim show that he was intimately involved in plotting an attack on US-bound airliners. And the emails to Karim are not the only evidence demonstrating Awlaki's operational role.

In December 2009, the same month Karim's younger brother visited Awlaki in Yemen, an AQAP recruit named Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Awlaki has publicly admitted that Abdulmutallab was one of his "students."

In court filings last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that Awlaki was not just a spiritual advisor for Abdulmutallab. Shortly after Abdulmutallab swore allegiance to the emir of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, he "received instructions from [Awlaki]...to detonate an explosive device aboard a US airplane over US airspace." Awlaki was directly involved in "preparing" Abdulmutallab for the Christmas Day 2009 operation, according to Clapper.

Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a 2010 Treasury Department press release that Awlaki "has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism -- fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents."

In designating Awlaki an al Qaeda terrorist in July 2010, the Treasury Department noted that he has "taken on an increasingly operational role" in AQAP since late 2009. [See LWJ report, US adds Anwar al Awlaki to list of designated terrorists.]

Another of Awlaki's "students" is Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas on Nov. 5, 2009. Like Rajib Karim, Hasan emailed back and forth with Awlaki as he plotted his day of terror.The FBI was aware of the emails before the Fort Hood shooting. Incredibly, the Bureau dismissed the importance of the email communications, incorrectly believing that they were just part of Hasan's research into the deleterious effects of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When putting together the various pieces, a pattern emerges. In November 2009, one of Awlaki's "students" launched a terrorist attack against military personnel inside the US. Awlaki had openly advocated such an operation beforehand. In December 2009, another of Awlaki's students attempted to blow up a jetliner over US airspace.

Then, in January 2010, Awlaki began plotting another attack on US-bound jetliners with Rajib Karim.

Clearly, Awlaki is more than just a radical preacher.



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READER COMMENTS: "Awlaki's emails to terror plotter show operational role "

Posted by Jack Barclay at March 2, 2011 5:27 AM ET:

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for an interesting round-up of this important case.

I wanted to share a couple of thoughts with you and your readers on what this case tells us about al-Awlaki. Feel free to throw rotten tomatoes if you think I'm off-beam here!

The tenor of your piece clearly suggests how the case demonstrates al-Awlaki is more than just an ideologue and inciter of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism. Fair enough - growing evidence points in that direction that his activities are broader than this.

However, accepting the statements by Stuart Levey and others, what puzzles me slightly is that, as far as we are aware, Al-Awlaki has no real operational terrorist background or expertise. He's an ideologue, an inciter of terrorism - specifically, he has an ability to connect (in more ways than one, it would seem) with would-be Jihadist volunteers in the West. In many cases, I get the sense that the status he enjoys here means people are mostly reaching out to him, rather than the other way around.

Let me try to bottom-line this. Looking at the email exchanges, I can't help getting the sense that al-Awlaki is being leveraged as a very useful point of contact, a go-to guy who is respected by Western supporters, and who AQAP therefore benefits from in that he helps them connect more easily with potentially useful operational personnel in places like the US and UK. Now I admit this is a hunch, but from the flavour of his emails, he's a long way from being the strategist or even the operational planner behind a lot of these operations. He's asking sensible questions of his contacts to establish their background, trustworthiness, access, contacts, skills, and commitment. He's asking THEM for their ideas as much as anything, and where he does chip in with ideas of his own, they're fairly broad-brush strategic comments (e.g. aviation attacks rather than a cyber attack as suggested by Karim, US top target but we're happy with the UK) but he's not really doing much actual tasking himself. He's more like AQAP's corporate head-hunter. Maybe he's just asking the questions given to him by others in order to size-up potential recruits.

So in considering statements such as 'an increasingly operational role', I think we need to define this a little more carefully - yes, he appears to be involved in at least identifying talent and assessing their usefulness to AQAP's international terrorist agenda. But as interesting and important as this case clearly is for what it says about al-Awlaki and his value to the Salafi-Jihadist movement, let's be careful not to profile this guy as some sort of terrorist mastermind just yet...

Thoughts, anyone?

Best,
Jack Barclay
http://icsr.info/paper/challenging-the-influence-of-anwar-al-awlaki

Posted by Grim at March 2, 2011 1:20 PM ET:

I always knew Awlaki's role was greater than that of media, spiritual, and clerical work. Adam Gadahn use to be at the top of my personal hit list but now Awlaki is my #1. I would like to see his father take in the information and then explain why we should not target him again. Unfortunately, AQ will likely make gains in Yemen with the current unrest. I say take out Awlaki and then deal with whatever reprecussions. AQAP is simply becoming too much of a serious problem for us to sit back and watch it play out. Intervention now may save a large deployment down the road.

Grim

Posted by DANNY at March 2, 2011 10:04 PM ET:

Yeah, don't it make you feel good that Adam Gadahn is dead, killed by one of our drones. good riddance!

Posted by Grim at March 3, 2011 8:25 AM ET:

@ Jack

Comparatively to some of the other brain-dead terrorists that we are facing, Awlaki is a mastermind. These guys go to Awlaki partially because they know how he is. If they contact Awlaki and he transfers them over to an actual operational planner, AQ might not get the same wiliness out of fresh blood. Awlaki causing the Fort Hood incident is proof enough of what he can inspire others to do. Unfortunately he is well educated and could potentially figure out how to guide others in executing an even more catastrophic incident. I would not underestimate him but hopefully a missile with his name on it flies soon. Then the problem would be resolved. Come on Uncle Sam, let's take out the abominations that came from our soil ASAP!

Posted by Neonmeat at March 3, 2011 12:09 PM ET:

God these guys are really starting to do my head in!
I think one of the emails is quite telling about their selfish reasons:

"This is not a weekend religion. The contract is to sell our souls to Allah. The compensation is paradise."

I think the talk of paradise is the key here. These are materialistic men, they are not spiritual in any sense of the word. They do not even understand their own religion. As it is denied to them in life they seek the pleasures of the flesh and of music and of everything that makes up a supposed 'paradise' in death instead. They blame the western nations and the 'kuffar' for their miserableness when all the while it is there fundamentailst approach to their faith that is causing it.

For many religions Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, even many sects of Islam paradise or heaven is simply being one with or close to Gods love, this is all the 'reward' that is needed. It is an untangible relationship with the divine. However in Al Qaeda et al all we see are crude depictions of earthly pleasures such as sex and drink that will be the 'reward'. If I join a religion it is because I believe in its spiritual and moral teachings not because if I just blindly follow the rules I will end up in paradise, which is clearly what most of these idiots are doing.

Sorry for the long comment! or should I say rant!

Posted by ArneFufkin at March 3, 2011 1:26 PM ET:

@DANNY: Did I miss something regarding Gadahn?

Posted by kp at March 3, 2011 3:46 PM ET:

Not too sure about DANNY but the evidence seen on the LWJ seems to indicate Adam Gadahn was not killed by one of our drones but on the ground in Afghanistan perhaps in the Baghram assault (or follow up).

Posted by Mr. Wolf at March 3, 2011 4:25 PM ET:

Just maybe the unrest in Yemen will give us the cover to hunt a few of the terror exporters. (gohd dam and/or all waki).

Posted by James at March 3, 2011 10:44 PM ET:

@ Jack

This guy Awlaki is nothing but a rich, spoiled and well-educated college punk that has absolutely no combat experience.

Hopefully and soon, our guys will give him some combat experience that (at the very least) he'll never forget and will at a minimum scare the daylights out of him.

I am convinced that the most serious and imminent threat we now face comes from Awlaki.

This guy could have the potential now (or could develop it shortly) to bring about a calamity that could dwarf the 9/11 attacks I'm afraid.

Him and Pakistan (due to their nuclear arsenal) are the most pressing issues I feel at least in the short term in the GWOT.

Posted by Bill Roggio at March 4, 2011 2:21 AM ET:

Adam Gahdan is alive(he released a tape sometime late last year). I suspect he is being confused for Abu Talha al Almani, who the IMU said was killed in an assault on Bagram AB.