IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Relief, anger at mosque where al-Awlaki preached

At the Washington-area mosque where Anwar al-Awlaki preached a decade ago, the killing of the influential al-Qaida figure drew a knot of conflicting emotions about the man who more than anyone gave the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center its unwanted association with international terrorism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the Washington-area mosque where Anwar al-Awlaki preached a decade ago, the killing of the influential al-Qaida figure drew a knot of conflicting emotions about the man who more than anyone gave the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center its unwanted association with international terrorism.

Many worshippers at Dar al-Hijrah for Friday services said they were glad that al-Awlaki was gone — that he besmirched not only their mosque but all of Islam by calling for the deaths of innocent Americans. Others rejected both al-Awlaki's calls for violence against Americans and the U.S. airstrike that killed him in Yemen early Friday, saying he hadn't even been charged with a crime. And a small few were unrepentant in their support of al-Awlaki, though most were unwilling have their names attached to their views.

"I like justice to be done the normal way," said Tarik Diap. "If you're guilty of doing something, you have the law, you have courts. This is, for me, you're killing someone without proving innocence or guilt."

Hassan Mohamed, 62, said no allegations against al-Awlaki had been proven.

"I don't know why he should be killed," he said. "I don't approve of my government going around the world to kill innocent people."

Leaders of the mosque issued a statement saying that although al-Awlaki "encouraged impressionable American-Muslims to attack their own country," they deplored "extra-judicial assassination" and believed the drone attack "sends the wrong message to law-abiding people around the world."

The mosque said al-Awlaki, born in the U.S. to Yemeni parents, was known for his "interfaith outreach, civic engagement, and tolerance" when he served as imam at Dar al-Hijrah from January 2001 to April 2002. It said he did not begin preaching violence until later, after he was arrested and allegedly tortured in Yemen.

Opinions varied on what kind of preacher al-Awlaki was when he served in Virginia. Most said they did not find him to be overtly political or radical.

But Wadi Adam Lahrim, 34, of Fairfax, said al-Awlaki "did voice his opinions regularly about U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He encouraged the community to speak up against it."

Lahrim said that al-Awlaki was an appealing figure to U.S.-born Muslims because he understood their culture. "He didn't just teach hate. He did teach (positive) aspects of the religion ... and he was able to communicate better than some other imams," he said.

Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center is among the largest and most influential mosques on the East Coast, but has been stung by its associations with al-Awlaki and other targets in the U.S. fight against terrorism. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers worshipped there briefly when al-Awlaki was imam. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood, Texas shootings that left 13 dead in 2009, attended services there occasionally.

Al-Awlaki became a powerful al-Qaida tool for recruiting in the West after leaving the mosque. U.S. officials have said they believe he inspired Hasan's actions, and that he helped orchestrate the attempted Christmas 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound aircraft, among other allegations.

Khalid Abutaa was among those happy to hear the news that al-Awlaki was dead.

"It's good. It's good for Muslims. It's good for humans," said Abutaa, a retired chef. "In our religion, we're not supposed to kill nobody."

Jouwad Syed, of Alexandria, Va., recently moved to the area and only recently began attending the mosque. He said he was initially leery of joining because of the reputation and links to al-Awlaki. But he had also heard positive things about the mosque's outreach and charitable programs.

"We're not glad he's dead, but at the same time, it's helpful" because the links to al-Awlaki got in the way of the mosque's outreach efforts.

Indeed, the mosque endures some level of hostility from the general public. On Friday morning, as a crowd started to gather outside the mosque before midday services, a bicyclist rode by and shouted, "Yeah, they got your little buddy, didn't they?" then spit on the ground before pedaling off.

Several worshippers who were critical of the U.S. airstrike would not provide their names. One man said he had known al-Awlaki to be peaceful and believed he had been unjustly targeted.

The mosque's outreach director, Johari Abdul-Malik, previously denounced al-Awlaki's proclamations from Yemen.

"He had an allure. He was charming," Abdul-Malik told reporters in 2009, shortly after the Fort Hood shootings that al-Awlaki praised. "To go from that individual to the person that is projecting these words from Yemen is a shock."

"I don't think we read him wrong. I think something happened to him."

The Sept. 11 hijackers who worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, met al-Awlaki earlier in San Diego, where he was imam at al-Ribat al-Islami mosque.

Most of the mosque's worshippers are students and recent immigrants, so few of them knew al-Awlaki, said Magdy Hefnawy, the mosque's president. He said he understood why the United States sought to kill or capture him.

"This is our home here and we don't need anyone coming in here and harming this country," said Hefnawy, a native of Egypt. "We condemn everything he did because this is not the way of Islam. We are peaceful people."

Edgar Hopida, a spokesman for the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, attended al-Awlaki's classes at al-Ribat and said nothing he heard prepared him for the violent rhetoric the cleric went on to preach from Yemen. But he opposes the way the U.S. responded.

"Our main concern is with the fact that our government committed an extrajudicial killing on one of its own citizens without due process," Hopida said. "... He was just marked for assassination, which is against our foundation as Americans."


AP videojournalist Bill Gorman in Falls Church and Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.