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NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 10/20/2010 7:37:43 PM ET 2010-10-20T23:37:43

Al-Qaida operative and American-Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki attended a Pentagon luncheon several months after the 9/11 attacks, Pentagon officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

According to the officials, al-Awlaki was invited as part of a Pentagon outreach program to convince influential Muslims that the war in Afghanistan was aimed at al-Qaida, not Muslims.

The FBI obtained the information during its investigation into the Fort Hood shooting rampage last November and alleged gunman Nidal Hasan's contact with Awlaki.

According to officials, the information came during an FBI interview with a female lawyer who worked in the Defense Department's general counsel's office.

"It's clear at the time (when the Pentagon was reaching out to Muslims) that no one here knew of any terrorist ties Awlaki may have had," one senior Pentagon official told NBC News reported.

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Al-Awlaki was investigated by the FBI over possible ties to some of the Saudi hijackers who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Terrorists also crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York and into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

The story of the Pentagon luncheon invitation was first reported by Fox News, which said the meeting occurred in the offices of the Secretary of the Army. A current Defense Department employee told investigators she helped arrange the meeting after she saw al-Awlaki speak in Alexandria, Va., Fox News reported.

Al-Awlaki is believed to be allied with al-Qaida and hiding in Yemen. In addition to being linked to Hasan, he allegedly helped train Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day and is said to have inspired would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent. Robert Windrem is an NBC News senior investigative producer.

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