The UndieBomber’s Interrogators Asked Him about Anwar al-Awlaki’s Death Just after He Was Put on Kill List

At least by October 4, 2011, UndieBomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been told that Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed. During jury selection that day, he yelled out “Anwar is alive,” as he had previously yelled out “Osama’s alive” at a hearing in September.

A week later, Abdulmutallab tried to plead guilty, and the following day, on October 12, he somewhat surprisingly did so (though of course he had tried to plead guilty a year earlier when he fired his court appointed lawyers, so maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise after all).

I find it interesting that Abdulmutallab knew Awlaki was dead when he plead guilty because Abdulmutallab’s interrogators appear to have tried to goad him into revealing more by discussing the death of Awlaki … before it happened.

In his memo on why Abdulmutallab represents an ongoing danger, Dr. Simon Perry lists the Abdulmutallab interrogations he relied on. The dates track what we know about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation: he confessed on Christmas Day 2009 (apparently implicating an Abu Tarak, which may be an alias for Anwar al-Awlaki). Then he clammed up for several weeks, until the FBI got Abdulmutallab’s family members to fly to MI to convince him to cooperate, which he started doing on January 29, 2010. Perry describes interrogations happening almost every day for 11 days (taking a break on Monday, February 1 and the following weekend, February 6 and 7), followed by seven more interrogations in February. Perry’s list suggests there was a break until April–though he does cite a March 15 interrogation (see footnote 54) that doesn’t appear in his list. In April, there were three interrogations: on April 8, 16, and 30. Altogether, Perry says he referred to reports from 18 or 19 interrogations, depending on whether there was one on March 15.

Perry’s memo therefore provides a really general overview of the interrogations Abdulmutallab had (though we can’t be entirely sure that these include all his interrogations). We can’t really draw conclusions about what the government learned from him when, since Perry’s focus is limited to Abdulmutallab’s radicalization and desire for martyrdom rather than specific information about Awlaki. And, as I noted here, Perry rather bizarrely doesn’t date the interrogation when Abdulmutallab admitted that Awlaki was the person originally named as Abu Tarak who ordered him to attack the US, so we can’t learn from Perry’s memo when Abdulmutallab clearly implicated Awlaki as Awlaki in the plot.

But there are two fascinating details of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation revealed by the following passage of Perry’s memo (remember, Perry uses the acronym UFAM for Abdulmutallab).

Yet we can learn that the rewards of martyrdom play a significant part for UFAM since when he talks about Aulaqi’s martyrdom he stresses that he believes that if Aulaqi were to be killed, he would be entitled to a martyrs reward. UFAM explains (again not in the context of his own martyrdom) that there are different degrees of reward for martyrdom. [interrogation from April 16, 2010] For example UFAM believes that if the accusations against Aulaqi were true (allegations of solicitation of prostitution) Aulaqi could repent for these sins and his commitment to Jihad would outweigh such transgressions. He adds that people are not perfect and that they make mistakes. [interrogations from February 15, 19, 2010]

I’ll start with the second detail first. On February 15 and 19, 2010–Abdulmutallab’s 12th and 14th interrogations of 18 or 19 Perry reviewed, so fairly late in the interrogation process–his interrogators were challenging Awlaki’s sanctity based on his prior busts for soliciting prostitutes. Interrogators presumably told Abdulmutallab about the two times Awlaki had been busted in the 1990s while living in San Diego.

The probe of the 9/11 attacks soon led Washington FBI agents back to San Diego, where they found that al-Awlaki had twice been busted for soliciting prostitutes in 1996 and 1997 but had avoided jail time. Al-Awlaki has previously described these charges as “bogus.” But FBI agents hoped al-Awlaki might cooperate with the 9/11 probe if they could nab him on similar charges in Virginia. FBI sources say agents observed the imam allegedly taking Washington-area prostitutes into Virginia and contemplated using a federal statute usually reserved for nabbing pimps who transport prostitutes across state lines.

And it would make sense that interrogators would raise Awlaki’s past with prostitutes. It appears that Abdulmutallab’s interrogators were trying to get him to reveal more information–lose faith in Al Qaeda so he would reveal more–based on what a hypocrite his religious mentor was.

Not that it appears to have worked. Abdulmutallab just forgave Awlaki in the same way many religious conservatives dismiss their own leaders’ hypocrisy in this country.

The other reference is even more interesting. On April 16, 2010, the second-to-last interrogation of those Perry reviewed, Abdulmutallab’s interrogators asked him about Awlaki’s martyrdom. Or, to use the secular term, they talked about Awlaki’s death. (This is the sole reference to the April interviews in Perry’s report.)

Look at the date. One of the first stories reporting Awlaki had been added to CIA’s kill list was published the evening of April 6, 2010, so just a couple days before that first April interrogation, after what appears to be a significant break in interrogations, and just ten days before the interrogation in question. That is, just after Awlaki was put on the CIA kill list, interrogators asked Abdulmutallab what he thought would happen were Awlaki to be killed.

And remember one more thing about this timing. At this point in April 2010, they seem to have finished the initial flurry of interrogations that provided evidence to put Awlaki on the kill list. They were asking Abdulmutallab about Awlaki’s death just as Awlaki was added to the CIA kill list that would eventually lead to his death. Yet DOJ had not yet signed off on the OLC memo authorizing it (they would do so in June).

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

3 replies
  1. Bob Schacht says:

    The secrecy attached to a lot of this information is mostly a cover-up for sloppy work, IMHO. The courts need to staff up to deal with this kind of information to stop the endless deference to Executive Department on national security claims requiring secrecy. The district courts perhaps could share a common staff of lawyers with security clearances to assist them? And all of the Supremes should have automatic security clearances, as well as security clearances for key staff. Otherwise, the Executive Department has found a way to dismantle to separation of powers.

    Bob in AZ

  2. rugger9 says:

    Which makes Janice Rogers Brown’s ideologically driven dogma of presumption of government truth all the more ridiculous and appalling in her recent ruling on another case. This even ignored the facts of the very case on which she ruled. Way to go, W.

  3. MadDog says:

    One of the things that also draws my attention that the WaPo piece reminds us about is the fact that JSOC had al-Awlaki on its apparently un-OLC sanctioned kill list for some time before the CIA did:

    “A Muslim cleric tied to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner has become the first U.S. citizen added to a list of suspected terrorists the CIA is authorized to kill, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

    Anwar al-Aulaqi, who resides in Yemen, was previously placed on a target list maintained by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command and has survived at least one strike carried out by Yemeni forces with U.S. assistance against a gathering of suspected al-Qaeda operatives…”

    For those waiting for more of a glimpse at the OLC’s sanctioning of the CIA’s killing of al-Awlaki, the quiet elephant in the room is why JSOC could kill al-Awlaki apparently without OLC sanction whereas the CIA could not.

    While I suspect that there is the usual legal riff about the difference between military versus civilian agency killing, that may be a factor, but not necessarily the whole story.

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