Exclusive: Yemeni Journalist Says Awlaki Alive, Well, Defiant

 

The radical imam who was reported to have been killed in a U.S.-backed airstrike last week has resurfaced this week, very much alive and very much defiant, a Yemeni journalist tells Declassified.

Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni-based imam who had conducted a lengthy email correspondence with accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, "called me last night and told me a lot of information," the journalist, Abdul Elah Hider al-Shaya, said in a telephone interview from Yemen.

Although friends and relatives of Awlaki had already cast doubt on the reports of the controversial cleric's demise, his apparent phone conversation with Shaya seems to be the most direct confirmation so far that he emerged unscathed from a joint U.S-Yemeni military strike that was supposed to have led to his death.

According to Shaya, Awlaki told him when he called, "I'm in my house. The statement that the Yemeni government put out [reporting his death] is lies." Awlaki further told Shaya that he was also at his home in Shabwa, a southern Yemen province, at the time of the airstrike and did not attend a supposed meeting of Al Qaeda leaders that included Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Said al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee who is the Al Qaeda leader's chief deputy.

Awlaki also appeared to defend his seeming email correspondence with Hasan in the year before the Army psychologist allegedly engaged in a shooting rampage at the Texas army base that left 13 people dead early last month. Awlaki argued that "that was a military operation," says Shaya. "It was not against civilians."

There is no independent way to confirm Shaya's account and U.S. intelligence officials are now ducking the question of whether they believe Awlaki is dead or alive. "His status is not entirely clear," a U.S. intelligence official says. But Gregory Johnsen, a Yemeni expert at Princeton University, says that journalist Shaya, while known to have jihadi sympathies, has generally proved to be a credible source in the past. "Nothing I've seen him ever say has ever turned out not to be true," Johnsen says.

Certainly, there is little question that the journalist has good contacts in Islamic militant circles. Earlier this month, he conducted an interview with Awlaki for the Al-Jazeera network in which the cleric described his email correspondence with Hasan, saying it began on Dec. 17, 2008, when the Army psychologist contacted him and asked "whether killing American soldiers and officers is lawful or not." In the Al-Jazeera interview, Awkali described Hasan's Fort Hood shooting as a "heroic act," saying that the American soldiers he killed "weren't normal ones, but they were prepared and getting ready to take off to fight and kill weakened Muslims and commit crimes in Afghanistan."

Shaya insists to NEWSWEEK that Awlaki is not tied to Al Qaeda. Asked whether Awlaki had told him about any contacts he may have had with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused bomber of the Christmas Day Northwest airlines flight bound to Detroit, Shaya declined to comment, saying this was all he was going to say for now.

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