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CNN Exclusive: Al-Awlaki's father says son is 'not Osama bin Laden'

By Paula Newton, CNN
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Al Awlaki father speaks
  • Father: Anwar al-Awlaki not an al Qaeda member, and can't be tied to acts of terrorism
  • "He has been wrongly accused," Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki says of his son
  • Yemeni officials have said Anwar al-Awlaki is hiding in Yemen with al Qaeda
  • Yemeni officials have claimed he had contact with suspect in failed plane bombing
  • Anwar al-Awlaki
  • Yemen
  • Al Qaeda

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- His anguish apparent, the father of Anwar al-Awlaki told CNN that his son is not a member of al Qaeda and is not hiding out with terrorists in southern Yemen.

"I am now afraid of what they will do with my son, he's not Osama Bin Laden, they want to make something out of him that he's not," said Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

As recently as Sunday, Yemeni officials including provincial governor Al Hasan al-Ahmadi claimed that al-Awlaki was hiding out in the southern mountains of Yemen with al Qaeda.

"He's dead wrong. What do you expect my son to do? There are missiles raining down on the village. He has to hide. But he is not hiding with al Qaeda; our tribe is protecting him right now," insisted al-Awlaki's father in an exclusive interview with CNN.

"My son is (a) wanted man, he's cornered, that's the problem I am facing," al-Awlaki said.

The al-Awlaki family comes from the large and powerful Awalek tribe of southern Yemen. It has many connections to the government of Yemen, including the country's prime minister, who is a relative of the al-Awlaki family.

Recently, Yemeni officials have also claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki had contact with Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab during his stay in Yemen in late 2009. When asked if his son met with the man charged with trying to blow up a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas day, al-Awlaki's father said it's not likely.

"I have no idea but I don't believe it," he said.

But the United States has independent intelligence verifying that AbdulMutallab met with al-Awlaki somewhere in southern Yemen before the Christmas Day bombing attempt, according to a U.S. security official with knowledge of the intelligence.

Even if al-Awlaki is hiding out with his tribe in the mountains of southern Yemen, the official added, authorities have no doubt that he is a member of al Qaeda and is now one of the top five or six operatives in Yemen for the terrorist organization.

The official said al-Awlaki's transformation from inspirational leader to operational recruiter for al Qaeda was first picked up in the early part of 2009.

This official also noted that the United States believes he is still involved in trying to recruit more bombers to launch attacks.

His father, the elder al-Awlaki, is an accomplished academic and had held several positions within the Yemeni government, including minister of agriculture. He first went to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in the late '60s, and his son Anwar was born there in 1971.

Al-Awlaki says he is doing what he can to coax his son out of hiding, but does not want to jeopardize his son's life.

"I will do my best to convince my son to do this (surrender), to come back but they are not giving me time, they want to kill my son. How can the American government kill one of their own citizens? This is a legal issue that needs to be answered," he said.

"If they give me time I can have some contact with my son but the problem is they are not giving me time," he said.

Al-Awlaki acknowledged his son has espoused some controversial views but all of them, he said, would be protected by freedom of speech provisions in the American Constitution. He denied his son has done anything to encourage terrorists to commit violent acts.

"He is a preacher, you cannot tie Anwar to acts of terrorism," said al-Awlaki.

Al-Awlaki's name surfaced in November when U.S. officials revealed he and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5 -- had exchanged e-mails. The intercepted e-mails between the two, officials said, had not not set off alarm bells.

The cleric recently told Al Jazeera's Arabic-language Web site that he met Hasan nine years ago while serving as an imam at a mosque in the Washington, D.C., area. He said he lauded the Fort Hood attack because it was aimed at troops, whom he accused of fighting an unjust war against Islam.

"It is a military target inside America and there is no dispute over that," Anwar al-Awlaki said. "Also, these military personnel are not ordinary; they were trained and ready to fight and kill oppressed Muslims, and commit crimes in Afghanistan."

When asked why his son would praise Hasan, Nasser al-Awlaki said he did not agree with his son's views.

"I don't think that's right what he said about Major Hasan's actions, but my son has been very upset by the violence against Muslims," said al-Awlaki.

Al-Awlaki does concede his son's views did seem more radical after he spent time in a Yemeni prison from 2006 to 2007 for suspected ties to terrorism. He was released for lack of evidence.

"They put him in jail for 18 months and I detected a change after he got out of prison, he began to get away from the mainstream," al-Awlaki said.

The father also warned that the aggressive hunt for his son and al Qaeda operatives in Yemen using missile strikes will only serve to recruit more members to the organization.

"I don't want those American cowboys to destroy Yemen," said al-Awlaki before conceding that the hunt for al Qaeda in Yemen is now a global concern.

"He has been wrongly accused, it's unbelievable. He lived his life in America, he's an all-American boy. My son would love to go back to America, he used to have a good life in America. Now he's hiding in the mountains, he doesn't even have safe water to drink," al-Awlaki said.