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Muslim cleric targeted by U.S. made little impression during Colorado years

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
(Muhammad ud-Deen, AP file photo)Anwar Al-Awlaki, shown in 2008, was bothered by what has been happening to Muslim people, said a former Denver Islamic Society official. He always talked about how Muslims used to be leaders of the world.
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FORT COLLINS – A Muslim cleric turned terrorist leader now targeted for assassination by the U.S. government is a Colorado State University graduate who honed his preaching skills in local mosques.

Born in New Mexico, Anwar al-Awlaki arrived in Colorado in 1990 to study at CSU after spending more than 11 years in Yemen. He graduated in 1994, records show, with a degree in civil engineering.

He left little mark here – no achievements notable or infamous – and relatively few in Fort Collins or Denver remember him.



Those who did know al-Awlaki recall his emerging gift for oratory and persuasion. Some sensed the stirrings of radicalism in his speeches before he left in the mid-1990s, eventually returning to Yemen.

“What bothered him was what has been happening to Muslim people around the world,” said Najeeb, 52, a former trustee at the Denver Islamic Society’s al-Noor mosque who asked that his last name not be printed. Al-Awlaki spoke often of holy warriors, he said. “He always talked about how Muslims used to be leaders of the world.”



The Obama administration recently took the extraordinary step of putting al-Awlaki on a government hit list despite his U.S. citizenship, The New York Times reported last week. The decision was based on intelligence about al-Awlaki’s links with Fort Hood attacker Maj. Nidal Hasan and Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was caught trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman of California, chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, said al-Awlaki is “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us.”

The designation surprises many of those who heard him preach.



“A lot of us are like: This is not the guy we heard,” said Taj Ashaheed, 40, spokesman for the Colorado Muslim Council and chaplain at Denver’s jail.

“This is difficult to reconcile. I’ve heard him, out of his mouth, repudiate terrorism,” Ashaheed said, recalling al-Awlaki standing in white addressing groups at the mosque.

“He was pretty reserved, tried to come off more intellectual than emotional. He was kind of bookish, nerdish,” he said. “Most people had the impression he was Western in his ways. His accent wasn’t that thick. His Arabic was really good. . . . There is that question, if it is true. If it is true, we are like: What the hell happened to the dude? This is not the dude we listened to.”


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