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FBI warned Pentagon of al-Awlaki's terrorist ties before Pentagon speech

Yemen Al Qaida
Anwar al-Awlaki was identified as a terrorist ahead of speaking at a Pentagon luncheon in 2002. (AP Photo/SITE Intelligence Group)

Newly released documents show the FBI identified U.S.-born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki as a terrorist the day before he spoke at a Pentagon luncheon in 2002, if not sooner.

Judicial Watch, the nonprofit watchdog group that made the documents public, obtained them via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI and the State Department.

Al-Awlaki, whose name is spelled al-Aulaqi in the documents, spoke by invitation at the Pentagon event on Feb. 5, 2002, despite being identified by the FBI as a "terrorist organization member" the day before.

The records released by Judicial Watch show that an FBI employee searched for his criminal history on Feb. 4, 2002, and received an emphasized alert reading "Warning -- approach with caution. ... Do not alert the individual to the FBI's interest and contact your local FBI field office at the earliest opportunity."

The documents also show that the FBI was preparing to prosecute al-Awlaki on charges of soliciting prostitutes in Washington, D.C. He spent $2,320 for least seven encounters between Nov. 5, 2001, and Feb. 4, 2002, the day before his speech.

The documents also reveal that al-Awlaki's doctoral education was paid for by the World Bank and supported by the government of Yemen. A July 12, 2000, letter from the Center for International Programs at New Mexico State University, where al-Aulaqi received his master's degree, said he was "sponsored for a Ph.D. degree under the auspices of a World Bank Community College Project in Yemen. This project will pay for Mr. al-Aulaqi's tuition and fees, books, health insurance, and living costs while he is pursuing a Ph.D. degree program."

The FBI became interested in al-Awlaki as a terrorist as early as 1999. A memo between the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego office and the national FBI director requested a counterterrorism investigation of al-Awlaki. He was then followed closely between November 2001 and January 2002, the documents show.

Previously obtained FOIA documents show that the FBI was aware as far back as Sept. 27, 2001, that al-Awlaki may have bought the airplane tickets used by three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. He was detained at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 10, 2002, under a warrant for passport fraud, but the FBI ordered that he be released.

He was killed in a American drone attack in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011.