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Al-Awlaki spreads hate as 'digital jihadist'

Wednesday - 7/27/2011, 3:23pm  ET

al-awlaki
Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who resided in Falls Church for several years, was a spiritual adviser to two of the 9/11 hijackers. (WTOP file photo)

D.C. is likely the next target

J.J. Green

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Threat from 'unassimilated' immigrants

J.J. Green

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Whether you live in Springfield, Ill., Seattle, New York City, Fort Hood, Texas or the D.C. region, a disturbing trend has taken shape.

"According to Justice Department documents, there's been a case of homegrown terrorism with an international link every two to three weeks since 2009," says Fox News Channel National Correspondent Catherine Herridge in her book, "The Next Wave."

Each day, more than 100 agents and officers representing 35 agencies chase down leads on various terrorism investigations as members of the FBI's Washington Field Office (WFO) Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

Brenda Heck, special agent in charge of the counterterrorism (CT) division at the WFO, says the threat in the D.C. area sometimes comes from people who live here, but refuse to connect to their communities.

"The more they're unassimilated and impacted by activity overseas, that's more of a concern for us -- a threat that becomes very self-directed," Heck says.

For several reasons, one of the most active leads pertains to Anwar al-Awlaki. The radical cleric who resided in Falls Church, Va. for several years was a spiritual adviser to two of the 9/11 hijackers -- Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.

They were the first hijackers to arrive in the U.S. in January of 2000.

Herridge says the hijackers' relationship with al-Awlaki has always bothered investigators on the 9/11 commission.

"Why would Khalid Sheikh Mohammed send two of his most important operatives who are battle trained and who speak virtually no English to Southern California to the ghetto of San Diego unless there was someone there to meet them?" Herridge says the investigators asked.

Evidence also has turned up repeatedly that suggests al-Awlaki had close relationships with other people who later either confessed or carried out a terror plot against the U.S.

"What I found through my reporting is that his fingerprints are in almost every single case here in the United States," Herridge says.

U.S. intelligence sources say it's no accident that the Internet plays a major role in many of these cases.

"Awlaki is a good example of what I call a 'digital jihadist,'" Herridge says. "This is someone who uses our technology against us -- whether it's emailing, or blogging or Skyping. He's kind of like the Facebook friend from Hell. He uses all the social networking to spread this ideology of hate."

A Heritage Foundation report and official federal documents show at least 40 plots against the U.S. have been stopped since 9/11.

Eleven of them took place in the last year, and of those plots, three of the most recent cases had links in the national capital area.

The most troubling part about the al-Awlaki story for Herridge was his 2002 luncheon at the Pentagon.

"In February of 2002, he was invited by the Office of General Counsel at the Pentagon -- the top lawyers -- to be a guest speaker and to eat at one of the executive dining rooms," she says. "This was part of what was described in documents I've been able to obtain as the Pentagon's outreach to moderate Muslims."

Herridge says al-Awlaki's visit was "the part of the book that was very difficult for me to write. Because I felt that it was another example of how Anwar al-Awlaki had double-crossed us. He does it again and again and again."

Even though al-Awlaki was being courted as an informant and a bridge to the Muslim community during his luncheon at the Pentagon, his visit was like "a criminal returning to the scene of the crime saying, 'See what my boys did?'" Herridge says.

The damage that the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 caused to the Pentagon was very evident during al-Awlaki's visit.

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