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FBI incompetence let Anwar al Awlaki slip away, say retired investigators

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More than 20 years after 9/11, two key investigators who made the case their livesxe2x80x99 work have revealed they are still haunted by the fact that the FBI let the terroristsxe2x80x99 spiritual adviser slip away, only to inspire more deadly attacks in the name of Islam.

In an exclusive interview, New Jersey criminal investigator Jim Bush and FBI agent Bob Bukowski, who are both retired, told the Washington Examiner never-revealed details about how they pieced together some of the players behind the plot to hijack four commercial planes and kill 2,977 people. But the case that capped the careers of two seasoned investigators brought both triumph and disappointment, and they are only now learning why Imam Anwar al-Awlaki eluded them in the months after the attack.

xe2x80x9cI feel Awlaki was the most important figure in the 9/11 investigation,xe2x80x9d Bush said recently, his words tinged with both nostalgia and regret.

Awlaki was a charismatic radical cleric with a passion for prostitutes and whose fiery sermons could turn peaceful Muslims into cold-blooded killers. Bush and Bukowski were working on a branch of the 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOM and based in Paterson, New Jersey. Eleven of the 19 hijackers passed through the Garden State, and the gritty, densely populated city 20 miles west of Manhattan was a hot spot.

Jim Bush’s and Bob Bukowski’s FBI identification badges. (Jim Bush and Bob Bukowski)

By June 10, 2002, Bush and Bukowski were confident they had enough to nab al-Awlaki, but they were inexplicably told to stand down by the FBI. Between that time and Sept. 30, 2011, when a U.S. drone killed al-Awlaki in Yemen, the imam helped direct some of the worldxe2x80x99s most high-profile acts of terrorism. He referred in a video to the so-called xe2x80x9cunderwear bomberxe2x80x9d and Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan as his xe2x80x9cstudents,xe2x80x9d and a New York subway bombing plot, the thwarted attacks of the xe2x80x9cFort Dix Six,xe2x80x9d and multiple attacks in England all bore al-Awlakixe2x80x99s dastardly fingerprints.

Years later, Bush and Bukowski finally know the reasons they were prevented from bringing al-Awlaki to justice before he could inspire more followers to kill infidels: incompetence and paintball.

In the days following 9/11, the PENTTBOM team worked out of Paterson, New Jersey. Its mission was to focus on the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 77, which was slammed into the Pentagon, killing 189. They knew early on that a shadowy cleric had played a key role in the plot, but his identity had been elusive. Nine months after the attack, they showed the American-born al-Awlakixe2x80x99s photo to Eyad Rababah, who was in a Charlottesville, Virginia, jail, suspected of helping two hijackers get IDs and apartments at the behest of the mysterious imam.

xe2x80x9cWe showed the picture, and he sighs, and he looks at it, and he looks at it, and he goes, xe2x80x98Thatxe2x80x99s the guy. Thatxe2x80x99s the imam,xe2x80x99xe2x80x9d Bush recalled the Jordanian-born Rababah saying after seeing a grainy picture provided by the FBIxe2x80x99s Washington, D.C., field office. xe2x80x9cIt was a 100% identification.xe2x80x9d

xe2x80x9cIxe2x80x99m like, xe2x80x98Wow, this is it. Wexe2x80x98ve got it,xe2x80x99xe2x80x9d Bush recalled. xe2x80x9cWe had him identified by Eyad. We knew that there was enough to hold Awlaki.xe2x80x9d


Rababah was a star witness early on, xe2x80x9cthe first live person that met hijackers,xe2x80x9d Bush said. In working backward to find out who helped the 19 dead terrorists, his help was critical. Rababah had turned himself in at the New Haven, Connecticut, FBI field office after learning that Bush and Bukowski were on his trail after tracing him to a forged ID found in one of the hijackerxe2x80x99s cars.

Eyad Rababah. (Albermarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail)

xe2x80x9cI know the FBI is looking for me, and I just want to let you know I did meet two of the hijackers,xe2x80x9d he told the FBI. It was just 17 days after the 9/11 attacks.

In the ensuing months, Rababah would be tied directly to aiding four of the five hijackers from American Airlines Flight 77: Hani Hanjour, who piloted the hijacked plane, Nawaf al Hazmi, Majed Moqued, and Salem Hazmi. While they were the martyrs who died in the name of their twisted cause, the detectives knew they couldnxe2x80x99t have done it alone.

xe2x80x9cYou have to look as a detective,xe2x80x9d Bush said. xe2x80x9cYouxe2x80x99ve got to say, xe2x80x98How did these guys move around?xe2x80x99 They didnxe2x80x99t speak English. They had to have a network.xe2x80x9d

The investigators first established that the hijackers had stayed in safehouses the detectives traced to Rababah and his Syrian roommate, Daoud Chehazeh. Chehazeh had been arrested just before the Rababah turned himself in. Under questioning over several weeks while he was held on charges of ID fraud, Rababahxe2x80x99s claim of innocence began to unravel. One of the apartments he and Chehazeh shared was near a Falls Church, Virginia, mosque where al-Awlaki preached.

Despite claiming they xe2x80x9cwere not religious,xe2x80x9d Chehazeh acknowledged sending Rababah to ask the mosquexe2x80x99s imam for work. Confronted by that admission, Rababah confirmed he met with the imam at the mosque where two future hijackers asked for his help finding them a place to stay.

Daoud Chehazeh. (Alexandria Detention Center)

xe2x80x9cWow, wow, wow, this is going good,xe2x80x9d Bush recalled thinking. xe2x80x9cWe got Rababah at the mosque. We got him talking to Awlaki. We got him to talking to the hijackers after the prayer service.xe2x80x9c

The next step was getting Rababah to confirm that the imam hexe2x80x99d met was al-Awlaki. On June 10, 2002, while awaiting deportation to Jordan, Rababah made the jailhouse identification of al-Awlaki. Bush and Bukowski knew they had moved beyond the lower-level layer of logistical support and one ring closer to the senior leadership of al Qaeda. Al-Awlaki was a major player in the plot, and bringing him in could lead even further up the terror chain.

But al-Awlaki was not arrested, and the reasons would not be known to Bush and Bukowski for years. The pushback from the FBI started as Bush and Bukowski began their long drive back to New Jersey from Charlottesville. Bukowski knew another FBI agent was working on a different case involving al-Awlaki, but he didnxe2x80x99t know much more than that.

xe2x80x9cIxe2x80x99m not going to step on anybodyxe2x80x99s toes,xe2x80x9d Bukowski recalled. xe2x80x9cI donxe2x80x99t know what they are doing, and they donxe2x80x99t know what Ixe2x80x99m doing. But at least we figure, xe2x80x98Letxe2x80x99s give him a call and tell him what has happened.xe2x80x99xe2x80x9d

Bukowski told FBI Special Agent Wade Ammerman they had gotten a major break in the terror investigation, and that they had enough to arrest al-Awlaki. Ammerman said he wanted to meet Rababah to verify the account but would get back to them.

He never did. When an exasperated Bukowski called his bureau colleague back, he was stunned to hear Ammerman question their evidence.

xe2x80x9cHe goes, xe2x80x98I donxe2x80x99t know, I donxe2x80x99t believe hexe2x80x99s really identifying him,xe2x80x99xe2x80x9d Bukowski said.

What the investigators did not know was that Ammerman was overseeing a separate terror investigation into what became known as the xe2x80x9cVirginia Paintballxe2x80x9d case. A cancer researcher and self-described Muslim scholar named Dr. Ali al-Timimi had allegedly inspired a group of young men from Virginia who used paintball to train for holy war to go to Pakistan to join the terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Al-Awlaki was working as an informant for the FBI in that case, and nabbing him for 9/11 would blow his cover, the two investigators later discovered.

xe2x80x9cWe knew that there was enough to hold Awlaki,xe2x80x9d Bush said ruefully. xe2x80x9cThey didnxe2x80x99t want to for the reasons we know now.”

xe2x80x9cThe Washington field office did not want Awlaki identified so they could use him as an asset for the paintball case in which Awlaki didnxe2x80x99t know the players,xe2x80x9d he said.

Still, a week after Rababah positively identified al-Awlaki to Bush and Bukowski, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego issued a warrant for his arrest for falsely stating on his passport that he was born in Yemen when in fact he was born in New Mexico. Al-Awlaki had been in Yemen since March 2002, but he was nabbed at New Yorkxe2x80x99s JFK Airport on Oct. 10. Bush and Bukowski suspect Ammerman summoned him back to help with the paintball case.

Ammerman allegedly told customs agents to let al-Awlaki go. Days later, the cleric visited al-Timimixe2x80x99s Virginia home asking for help recruiting men for jihad. Al-Timimixe2x80x99s defense attorneys insist their client declined to help and unsuccessfully sought evidence showing al-Awlaki was wearing a wire and trying to entrap al-Timimi.

Al-Timimi was convicted of 10 felonies and received a life sentence in 2005. He was sent to the federal supermax prison in Colorado. A decade later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remanded al-Timimixe2x80x99s case on the grounds that the FBI withheld evidence that it used al-Awlaki as an informant.

His case is still under appeal. Al-Timimi was released from prison in September 2020 and is now under home confinement in Virginia awaiting resolution of his case. Jonathan Turley, al-Timimixe2x80x99s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the new revelations from Bush and Bukowski.

xe2x80x9cWe are obviously concerned by such reports but, given the ongoing litigation before in the federal courts, we do not feel that it would be appropriate to comment on such new evidence or allegations at this time,xe2x80x9d Turley said.

Documents obtained by Judicial Watch suggest that Ammerman had not gone rogue. Senior FBI leadership, including then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, were aware of the decision to pull back al-Awlakixe2x80x99s arrest warrant.

When reached by phone, Ammerman said he recently retired from the FBI office in Covington, Kentucky, and was contemplating writing a xe2x80x9cnon-fiction book that would have to be cleared through FBI channels.” He declined further comment.

xe2x80x9cIt is not wise for me to discuss these matters as I am bound by [nondisclosure agreements],xe2x80x9d he said.

The handling of al-Awlaki by the FBI has never been fully explained.

As for Bush and Bukowski, they still wonder why they were left in the dark while carrying out the most important investigation of their careers. Not only have they since learned the FBI had crystal clear images of al-Awlaki that would have made Rababahxe2x80x99s identification even more conclusive, they now know the FBI surveilled the cleric as he consorted with prostitutes and as he attended a Department of Defense luncheon at the still damaged Pentagon during a Muslim outreach event in February 2002.

FBI surveillance footage of Anwar al-Awlaki in Virginia on Feb. 5, 2002. (Judicial Watch)

xe2x80x9cKnowing Awlakixe2x80x99s involvement with the hijackers and their support network, it would logically seem to me more important to understand, disrupt, and hold accountable the people involved that perpetrated the largest terrorist attack and murder on U.S. soil instead of assisting in an investigation that he didnxe2x80x99t have a connection with,xe2x80x9d Bush said.


Ten years and 19 days after 9/11, the 6-foot-1, 135-pound al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a U.S. Hellfire missile launched from a drone. In the intervening decade, he had emerged as one of the worldxe2x80x99s most wanted men and most feared terrorists. Bush and Bukowski donxe2x80x99t mourn al-Awlaki, but they wish they had been the ones to bring him to justice.

xe2x80x9cWhy did we not have probable cause to arrest Awlaki,xe2x80x9d Bukowski recently wondered, xe2x80x9cbut we had probable cause to drone him?xe2x80x9d

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Tags: News, FBI, Department of Justice, Terrorism, 9/11, September 11 Terrorist Attacks, Anwar al Awlaki

Original Author: Pamela K. Browne

Original Location: FBI incompetence let Anwar al Awlaki slip away, say retired investigators