Newly released Federal Bureau of Investigation documents fill in the details of a central episode in the American conflict with al-Qaida: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s recruitment for the job of blowing up a Detroit-bound American airliner in December, 2009.
Mr. Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam with explosive chemicals hidden in his underclothing. He carefully monitored the flight’s progress until he was certain he was over American soil before pushing the plunger to mix the volatile chemicals and, he hoped, destroy the plane, but baruch Hashem, there was no explosion, only flames, which burned him badly but did no other damage.
The terrorist freely admitted to authorities that he was a member of al-Qaida and had hoped to bring the plane down and kill all its passengers. He later pled guilty to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison in 2012.
The new documents, released by a federal judge in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times, reveal an interesting and important piece of the story, something that was claimed by the Obama administration but is only now confirmed: The man who recruited the thankfully unsuccessful bomber was none other than Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Islamist who served as a leading propagandist for al-Qaida until he was eliminated in Yemen by an American drone in 2011.
In 2005, Abdulmutallab discovered Awlaki’s recorded lectures in an Islamic bookstore in London. In 2009, while living in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, he came to feel that he was being guided to jihad, and he set out to Yemen to try to find the rising al-Qaida leader.
In a series of conversations that year in Qaida safe houses in Yemen, we now know, Al-Awlaki carefully sized up the 23-year-old Nigerian volunteer, decided the man had the diligence and dedication for a “martyrdom mission,” and apprised him of what he had in mind: an attack that “should occur on board a U.S. airliner,” according to the now revealed account the would-be bomber gave the F.B.I.
Abdulmutallab told F.B.I. agents that he “was resolved to killing innocent people and considered them to be ‘collateral damage.’” With “guidance” from Mr. Awlaki, he said, he had “worked through all these issues.”
Awlaki told Abdulmutallab about what he saw as the religious obligation of jihad. He put the younger man up at his house in the province of Shabwah, where al-Qaida had a large presence, and introduced him to other al-Qaida trainers and bomb makers, according to the recruit.
The American terrorist also helped Mr. Abdulmutallab prepare a “martyrdom video” and provided him with an email address to report on his progress. He advised Abdulmutallab to blur his trail by traveling from Yemen to an African country before booking whatever plane he chose to blow up.
“Wait until you are in the U.S.,” Awlaki told his charge, “then bring the plane down.”
Awlaki’s final email to his charge read: “I wish it all goes well, I wish you the best.”
At the time of Awlaki’s elimination, there was much hue and cry among human rights activists over the American government’s having ordered, for the first time since the Civil War, the killing of an American citizen without criminal charges or trial. Some legal scholars questioned whether the order was constitutional. Mr. Obama argued that killing Mr. Awlaki was the equivalent of a justified police shooting of a gunman who was threatening civilians.
The F.B.I.’s decision in 2010 to keep the interview summaries secret also led critics to question the quality of the evidence against Awlaki. Now, though, we know that the Obama administration had ample firsthand testimony from Abdulmutallab that the American Islamist had overseen his training and conceived the plot.
As people whose human rights were regularly and egregiously denied over the course of history in many places, we Jews are fully sensitive to the need, at least in normal times, for due process and adherence to the letter of the law, even when dealing with unsavory types. But the world faces a lethal enemy these days, one bent on murder and mayhem, and the country we American Jews are privileged to live in is both a target and the main adversary of the multi-headed Islamist terror threat.
The recent revelation about Anwar al-Awlaki’s role in what could have been a mass murder of innocents should reinvigorate our government’s commitment to not only punish terrorists but to undermine terrorist plots, even if that needs to involve drastic measures.
Respecting human rights is important, even in cases of people suspected of harboring ill intent. But eliminating potential threats to potential victims’ right to live must remain foremost in the minds of Americas elected leadership.