Anwar Awlaki, the U.S. citizen killed last year in a CIA drone strike in Yemen, was instrumental in the failed plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009, according to a Justice Department court document filed Friday.
A sentencing memorandum for Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who pleaded guilty in October to attempting to down the jetliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear, makes public for the first time some of the evidence that led President Obama to order a lethal strike against Awlaki, the
Al Qaeda-linked cleric who was born in New Mexico.
Critics, including lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, have questioned whether Obama had the legal authority to order an attack on a U.S. citizen, and some wondered whether there was evidence tying Awlaki, known for his extremist sermons, to attacks against the United States.
Administration officials have said that Awlaki was
involved in planning operations to kill Americans and that he was therefore subject to deadly force under the law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that authorized the use of military force against Al Qaeda members regardless of their citizenship.
The Justice Department memo portrays Awlaki
as the mastermind of the Christmas 2009 plot, which could have killed at least 289 people had it succeeded. It says Abdulmutallab stayed in Awlaki’s house while the attack was planned. Awlaki also helped write the video “martyrdom” statement and introduced Abdulmutallab to the man who designed the explosive device used in the attempted bombing, according to the memo.
The evidence was gathered by the FBI principally through interviews with Abdulmutallab. White House officials said the case proves that not every suspected terrorist should be placed in military custody, as some Republicans argue.
“This evidence puts to rest the idea that you need to put guys in military custody to gather intelligence,” one White House official said. “He coughed all this stuff up to the FBI. Also, it shows in black and white that Awlaki was operational.”
Having followed Awlaki’s extremist teachings for several years, Abdulmutallab left Dubai, where he had been taking classes, to seek out the cleric in Yemen in August 2009, the document says.
Abdulmutallab wanted to be involved in holy war and was contemplating a suicide attack.
Ultimately, Abdulmutallab was taken to Awlaki’s house, the court document says, where he stayed for three days discussing the “martyrdom operation.”
Awlaki introduced the Nigerian to Al Qaeda bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who built the underwear bomb, the document says. Reports that Asiri was killed in the Awlaki strike have not been confirmed, U.S. officials say.
Asiri trained Abdulmutallab in the use of the bomb, including having him practice the detonation mechanism by pushing the plunger of a syringe, causing two chemicals to mix and start a fire that would ignite the explosive.
Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to record the so-called martyrdom video, the document says. Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab write his statement, and the five-minute video was recorded over two or three days. A 34-second excerpt of the video was later released by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of the terrorist group.
For two weeks, Abdulmutallab trained in an AQAP camp and received instruction in weapons, the document says.
The government is seeking a sentence of multiple life terms for Abdulmutallab, arguing that he is unrepentant and “poses a significant, ongoing threat to the safety of American citizens everywhere.”
Sentencing by U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds is set for Thursday in Detroit.