WASHINGTON – Anwar al-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 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 a jetliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear, makes public for the first time some of the evidence that led President Barack Obama to order a lethal strike against al-Awlaki, the al-Qaida 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 al-Awlaki, known for his extremist sermons, to attacks against the U.S.
Administration officials have said that al-Awlaki was involved in planning operations to kill Americans and that he was therefore subject to deadly force under the law passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks authorizing military force against al-Qaida members regardless of their citizenship.
The Justice Department memo portrays al-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 al-Awlaki’s house while the attack was planned. Al-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 Abdulmutallab case proves that not every terror suspect 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 al-Awlaki was operational.”