FBI agents in Charlotte had been actively gathering evidence for terrorism charges against al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan just months before he slipped out of the country, newly released files show.
The nearly 300 pages of heavily redacted FBI records, acquired by McClatchy through the Freedom of Information Act, show that the FBI, in coordination with federal prosecutors, had grown so concerned with Khan’s activities that agents reached out to one of the nation’s most elite special forces units to help out in preparation of a likely arrest.
Federal agents had indeed recognized Khan as a serious threat, the documents show, with legitimate ties to terrorist leaders while he was still in the United States. The files show that agents were building a case and had taken steps to stop him. But possibly not soon enough.
“Khan is becoming more radical and although working this case simply to gain intelligence on Khan’s contacts is certainly an option, it is the investigative team’s view that all work done in this case should be focused towards finding a resolution, i.e. a disruption via an arrest/prosecution,” FBI agents wrote in a Dec. 4, 2008, report.
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The investigation shifted into a higher gear late that year after agents learned that Khan had been communicating with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric from the United States and an al-Qaida leader with ties to the 9/11 bombers.
In a Jan. 8, 2009, report included among the documents, the Khan investigation had been elevated to a higher priority because of his contact with Awlaki, who was one of the FBI’s top terrorism targets. Awlaki was the first American to be placed on the CIA’s “kill or capture” list by the Obama administration.
The next day, on Jan. 9, Charlotte agents contacted the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, a special forces unit created to respond to terrorist incidents and hostage situations such as aircraft hijackings. The team, based at Quantico, Va., is largely made up of former special forces personnel from the Army Delta Force and the Navy SEALs.
A meeting was scheduled in Charlotte for “finalizing operational plans” five days later.
“If they’re bringing HRT down, that is what they would consider a very high-risk arrest, because normally the division’s SWAT team would take the arrest,” Martin Reardon, a former chief of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Operations Center, said in an interview with McClatchy. He was not involved in the investigation.
But the arrest was never made. Sometime in the following months, Khan slipped out of the country. He reappeared in Yemen, where he would launch al-Qaida’s glossy online magazine, Inspire, which was influential in radicalizing and recruiting extremists worldwide.
Reardon, who is now a security consultant with The Soufan Group, said agents and prosecutors likely didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute at the time.
“If this was a prosecutable case, the U.S. attorney’s office, particularly in Charlotte, would have been all over it,” said Reardon, who was stationed in North Carolina for more than a decade.
Word leaked out in August 2010 that prosecutors had convened a grand jury in Charlotte to determine whether to indict Khan on terrorism charges. However, prosecutors never announced an indictment.
Khan and Awlaki were killed a year later, when President Barack Obama approved the use of an unmanned U.S. drone to fire missiles at their vehicle as it drove through the Yemeni desert. Awlaki was the first American citizen killed intentionally as part of the war on terrorism; Khan happened to be with him.
The magazine, which continued after Khan’s death, was cited as likely influencing last month’s attack at a satirical French newspaper.
The files are part of a third batch of hundreds of heavily redacted files from an investigation that started in 2006.
Previously released FBI records indicate that Khan’s radicalization happened gradually. He started a blog in 2004 where he described himself as a man of peace and saw jihad more as a mental struggle. But his tone and tenor sharpened over the years.
He began to advocate for violence abroad. He posted hundreds of videos that graphically depict the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and suicide attacks on coalition facilities.
Marisa Taylor of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.