Intelligence Sources: “Tens of Thousands” of E-mailers Corresponded With Radical Cleric Linked to Underpants Bomber and Ft. Hood Shooter

U.S. intelligence agencies collected data indicating that “tens of thousands” of different e-mail account holders were in contact with with Anwar al-Awlaki, the fiery English-speaking cleric who has been linked to both accused Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan and failed Christmas underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to U.S. national security officials. This deluge of Internet traffic—involving e-mailers whose true identity often is not apparent—is one indication of the volume of raw intelligence U.S. spy agencies have had to sort through as they have tried to assess Awlaki’s influence in the West and elsewhere, said the officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The large volume of messages also may help to explain how agencies can become so overwhelmed with data that sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect potentially important dots.

In the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings, law enforcement officials acknowledged that U.S. intelligence had, in the months before the incident, collected around two dozen e-mails which Maj. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist facing possible assignment in the Muslim world, had exchanged with Awlaki. The cleric had been a subject of major interest to U.S. agencies since not long after the 9/11 attacks, when it was revealed that he allegedly had been in contact with two or three of the 9/11 hijackers while living in Virginia and San Diego; after 9/11, the American-born Awlaki left the U.S., settling first in England, and then in Yemen. Messages intercepted between Maj. Hasan and Awlaki in the months before the shootings were referred to the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces for investigation, but were subsequently deemed not to be suspicious enough to justify an extensive investigation. Investigators familiar with after-action inquests into the handling of intelligence about Hasan say that in hindsight, however, some of the messages Hasan exchanged with Awlaki appear to be quite incriminating.

Suspected electronic communications between Awlaki and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are now an intense focus of national security officials, who are trying to figure out what the American government knew about the failed underpants bomber before he got aboard Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. Some of these officials say that at this point, there is no clear indication that Abdulmutallab ever corresponded with Awlaki by e-mail. Instead, as NEWSWEEK reported in this week’s cover story, investigators are focusing on voice intercepts involving a phone used by Awlaki and someone who officials now believe—but still are not 100 percent certain—was Abdulmutallab. Investigators also suspect that Awlaki was a party to conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence late last summer among Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, in which they discussed using a Nigerian in a possible terrorist plot. But officials said that raw reports on the alleged conversations were not treated with any particular urgency within the U.S. intelligence community at the time they were collected, and that the possibility that the Nigerian mentioned in the intercepts was Abdulmutallab was not recognized by U.S. officials until after the young Nigerian was arrested upon landing in Detroit.

As we reported on Monday, after the Ft. Hood shootings, U.S. agencies made what officials describe as a strenuous effort to review raw intelligence reporting they had been collecting on Awlaki. But at no point before Christmas did analysts recognize Abdulmutallab as one of the people who may have been in contact with the preacher. According to national security officials, the first priority of intelligence agencies after Ft. Hood, in their reexamination of raw intelligence collected on Awlaki, was to try to identify other contacts besides Maj. Hasan with whom the cleric had been communicating inside the United States. Identifying potential threats among the “tens of thousands” of foreigners who had also been in contact with Awlaki was regarded as a secondary priority. As an intelligence official explained to Declassified on Monday: “Everyone understood─and understands─the importance of Awlaki. No question about that. As the White House itself has noted, there was no clear link between Awlaki and Abdulmutallab. That was the problem. There were only vague ‘bits and pieces.' When you know the answer, as everyone does now, you can go back and draw connections that were, at the time, anything but apparent.”

The large volume of raw message traffic on Awlaki may help explain why U.S. agencies were unable to “connect the dots” in a way which would have prompted them to stop Abdulmutallab from boarding Flight 253. But the large number of people with whom Awlaki evidently corresponded also raises another chilling question for which, at this point, U.S. agencies may have no good answer: how many other potential Hasans or Abdulmutallabs might there be among the “tens of thousands” of e-mail account holders who were in contact with the radical imam?