Before Samir Khan was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011, the FBI had hoped to capture and prosecute the blogger on terrorism charges. But Khan, a US citizen who wrote about violent jihad and was the founding editor of al Qaeda's glossy English-language magazine Inspire, somehow slipped out of the United States in 2009 and eluded capture.
The new revelations about the government's investigation into Khan were detailed in heavily redacted FBI files obtained by VICE News under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Previous documents revealed that the FBI launched an investigation of Khan in 2006 after the bureau discovered his incendiary blog, Inshallahshaheed, an Arabic phrase that means "Martyr, God willing." Less than a year later, according to the set of records, the FBI's "primary goal" was to determine if Khan "Is influencing/did influence anyone to commit an act of terror."
"A secondary goal is to determine if Khan is being directed by a higher authority/authorities to do so," states one of the documents in the FBI file, dated October 2, 2008. "If the investigation does determine that Khan is influencing or has influenced anyone to commit an act of terror, the FBI will disrupt Khan, either by prosecuting him for [providing material support to terrorism] and [solicitation to commit a crime of violence] or by other means."
The FBI also considered recruiting Khan as an informant, rather than disrupting any terror plots with which he may have been involved, believing that doing so would be "more beneficial" to the US government from an intelligence standpoint.
"Prior to proceeding with any disruption plan, it will be determined if the continued gathering of intelligence is more beneficial than a disruption (i.e. are other subjects of greater interest being identified, can Khan be recruited, etc.)," the FBI document said.
Khan traveled to Yemen in 2009 and hooked up with radical preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki, another US citizen who the US government said was a propagandist for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). There, Khan used his editorial skills to help launch Inspire, which included articles like "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom."
Last week, Inspire was in the news again after the Intercept, citing an "al Qaeda source," reported that the latest issue of the jihadist publication contained a clue "foreshadowing the attack" last week at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi. The clue was supposedly an image of a man shown kneeling in prayer next to a pressure cooker, above a separate image of a French passport.
Charlie Hebdo was known for publishing demeaning cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Inspire responded to it in May 2013 by including Charlie Hebdo's editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier on a hit list. Cherif Kouachi had traveled to Yemen in 2009 and 2011 and met with Al-Awlaki, according to news reports, and it's possible he had also met with Khan during that time.
The Intercept printed a statement from the al Qaeda source praising the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The al Qaeda source also noted the apparent hypocrisy by Westerners who said the massacre of Charlie Hebdo's editors and cartoonists was an attack on freedom of speech.
"Was it a crime to kill Samir Khan for being a member of Inspire Team?" the al Qaeda source asked.
The source may have a point. While Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were inflammatory, the magazine's supporters, including numerous US officials, have said that Charbonnier and other staffers were simply exercising their free speech rights as journalists. The FBI files on Khan, on the other hand, show an attempt to suppress his extremist rants, which would otherwise be protected under the First Amendment.
"Samir Khan continues to post violent jihadi blogs on the Internet despite several attempts to silence him," one 2007 FBI file states.
"The longtime concern by civil libertarians regarding the material support statute is that it does encroach in what otherwise would be First Amendment protected activities," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice working on intelligence reform. "It's a dangerously broad statute…. Someone expressing their viewpoint, no matter how abhorrent, is normally protected unless intended to incite imminent violence. Under the material support statute, the critical element becomes whether his speech was coordinated with a designated foreign terrorist organization."
Still, the "caveat," German said, is that the FBI files on Khan are so heavily redacted that we don't know for certain if the bureau had other intelligence on Khan in addition to his blog posts — though according to the latest batch of records obtained by VICE News, it doesn't appear that the FBI had much on Khan beyond those posts to warrant an arrest. Indeed, in June 2008, FBI special agents met with an unnamed official at Central Piedmont Community College, where Khan was enrolled in classes.
"The meeting was initiated based on a telephone call from [redacted] requesting a meeting to discuss the potential security threat posed by Khan to the students and faculty of CPCC," states an FBI file. "The parties discussed the open source information on Khan… concerns over potential threat posed by Khan, the threat posed by others who opposed Khan's inflammatory Internet communications, Khan's potential improper use of CPCC computers, and possible response of Muslim students at CPCC if they expelled Khan."
Piedmont Community College officials wanted to expel Khan either based on his "academic deficiencies" or on the "threat to security" they believed he posed to the campus. But the FBI agents said they did not believe Khan to pose a "direct or imminent" threat to the college.
As the year progressed, Khan continued to post provocative blog posts. But the FBI still did not have enough evidence against him to charge him with terrorism-related offenses. An FBI official wrote in one report, dated October 14, 2008, "[redacted] discussed the potential violations of Federal Law: Providing Material Support… and Incitement/Solicitation."
"[Redacted] opined that to date there was insufficient evidence to support formal charges," the FBI document said. "[Redacted] agreed that further investigation and scrutiny were warranted."
A week later, on October 24, 2008, an email an FBI official sent to nearly a dozen other people at both the bureau and other government agencies said two additional intelligence analysts were being assigned to the Khan case. The same day, the FBI's Charlotte, North Carolina field office sent a cable alerting the New York division "of possible travel of [Khan] and request surveillance if such travel occurs."
A year later, Khan left the US for Yemen without incident. According to a letter Attorney General Eric Holder sent to members of Congress, Khan was not "specifically targeted" in the drone strike that killed Al-Awlaki in September 2011.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold