On January 21, 2010, the FBI received a memo from one of its legal attachés overseas that raised alarm bells: Samir Khan, a Charlotte, North Carolina resident who three months earlier had traveled to Yemen, was "actively" planning an attack against the United States.
The memo noted that Khan was not acting alone. He had been working closely with another US resident, the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who years earlier had relocated to Yemen and at the time was suspected by US intelligence agencies of being the operational leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
"Based on current events regarding Samir Khan and AQAP, CTD [FBI counterterrorism division] is expending significant resources in conducting [redacted]," an FBI special agent at the bureau's Charlotte field office wrote in a report a few weeks later. "Khan's activities in Yemen in support of AQAP have highlighted him as a subject of extreme importance."
Two months after the legal attaché sent the memo, President Barack Obama placed al-Awlaki on a list of people the CIA was authorized to kill, making him the first American targeted for assassination. A year and a half later, on September 30, 2011, two Predator drones were launched from an airbase in Saudi Arabia used by the CIA. They fired Hellfire missiles at a vehicle carrying al-Awlaki, Khan, and other suspected al Qaeda operatives. Obama administration officials said that Khan was not the intended target of the drone strike.
The details about the memo, and Khan and al-Awlaki's alleged plans to attack the US, are just a couple of the noteworthy and previously unreported takeaways contained in nearly 600 pages of heavily redacted FBI documents on Khan that VICE News obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. This is the eighth installment in our long-running series about the FBI's investigation into Khan, a blogger turned "global extremist." The FBI has been releasing the Khan files — there are tens of thousands of pages — to VICE News on a rolling basis. The bureau withheld more than 300 pages from the latest cache, citing a threat to national security and other exemptions under FOIA.
Khan had been under FBI surveillance for at least three years beginning in 2007. He landed on the FBI's radar after he authored incendiary blog posts supporting violent jihad, terrorist groups like al Qaeda, and the death of Americans. Over the years, the FBI collected evidence that showed Khan graduated from spouting anti-American rhetoric to recruiting people to make jihad abroad and that he may have been planning to martyr himself.
The new documents resolve some unanswered questions about Khan, notably the exact date he left the US. According to the FBI, Khan first traveled to Doha, Qatar on October 21, 2009, just as the FBI's probe into his activities was heating up and he became a top priority. On October 23, 2009, Khan left Qatar for Sanaa, Yemen and became known as Abu Risaas.
The documents contain heavily redacted transcripts of interviews FBI special agents conducted with at least two American men who traveled to Yemen, apparently to learn Arabic, that al-Awlaki and Khan allegedly tried to recruit for jihad. They also contain a transcript of an interview with a Jacksonville, Florida man, one of Khan's "Internet jihadis," about Khan's intentions in Yemen.
"Individuals close to Khan have expressed concern that Khan may become a martyr, and he himself has indicated an interest in becoming a martyr," an FBI report said.
An FBI special agent, who characterized Khan as a "frustrated misfit," requested "significant funding" to continue monitoring him after he left the US.
"Can we get your blessing on this," an FBI agent wrote in an email outlining what appears to be a plan for dealing with Khan. Another FBI agent responded, saying it seemed "like a good plan."
It's unclear if the request was approved. However, the FBI files make clear that the bureau obtained intelligence about Khan from sources inside Yemen.
In October 2010, Khan became the founding editor of AQAP's slick, English-language glossy magazine, Inspire. The first issue featured articles written by Khan, including one titled "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" that apparently inspired the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and may have also been the instructional manual the San Bernardino shooters used to build pipe bombs.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold