ASSASSINATED: Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki
ASSASSINATED: Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki The Washington Post

Brush with terror suspect brings scrutiny

A GOVERNMENT cable published by Wikileaks in 2011 gave Imam Zainadine Johnson greater insight into some of his earlier travel woes.

The message, reportedly from the US Embassy in Canberra, urged that Imam Zainadine and a number of other Australians be placed on a no-fly list due to alleged links to a leading Islamic extremist.

Imam Zainadine said his dealings with Yemeni cleric Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki while he was studying in Yemen were very brief but probably enough for the US to take an interest.

US-born Sheikh al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in September 2011.

His extremist publications made him a target of the US.

US President Barack Obama spoke of Sheikh al-Awlaki's death during a speech in Pittsburgh last year when detailing his government's counter-terrorism record.

"Thanks to the skill of our military and counter-intelligence professionals, we've struck major blows against those who threaten us," a transcript of President Obama's speech read.

"Osama bin Laden is gone.

"Anwar (al-)Awlaki, a leader of the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen- gone."

Imam Zainadine became aware of Sheikh al-Awlaki while studying at Al Eman University in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a.

"Anwar al-Awlaki was doing some talks around," Imam Zainadine said.

He said they were in private venues.

"I was invited but I was very busy with my studies.

"His talks were in English so I didn't go.

"I was studying his scholars in Arabic."

He said he did not know who Sheikh al-Awlaki was but knew others who held him in high regard.

It was in about 2007 or 2008 that Imam Zainadine met a large, red-bearded Danish man who went by the name Murad Storm.

Murad had a three-year-old boy with him named Osama.

Imam Zainadine said they lived at the university.

"He was a nice-enough, happy-enough chap so I accepted him as a friend.

"People felt sorry for him because he had a small son and we tried to help him."

Imam Zainadine said he let Osama play with his children.

"He (Murad) even stayed at my house once."

Imam Zainadine said Murad was doing a little bit of study at the university but not much.

What Imam Zainadine didn't know was Murad's real name was Morten Storm.

He was a former Islamic extremist turned spy.

"He was a great spy.

"He knew a lot of sayings of the Prophet.

"He was really in amongst it all."

Storm revealed his life as a spy in a Danish newspaper article in 2012, claiming he worked for Danish, English and American intelligence agencies, including the CIA and MI6, to gain information on Islamic extremists.

He befriended Sheikh al-Awlaki during his time in Yemen and claimed to have been a key player in his assassination.

"He was probably the closet of all people who were there to Anwar al-Awlaki," Imam Zainadine said.

Imam Zainadine believed his interaction with Mr Storm as well as others who went to Sheikh al-Alawki's lectures contributed to him being linked to the extremist.

Another factor may have been a phone call Imam Zainadine said he received from Sheikh al-Awlaki.

He said Sheikh al-Awlaki asked him to mediate in a divorce issue one of Imam Zainadine's fellow university students was going through.

Imam Zainadine learned of the Wikileaks revelations through a phone call from his mother after they appeared in a newspaper article in August 2011.

His name was in the article.

He was living in Cairo at the time.

"The first thing I did was go straight to the Australian Embassy in Cairo," he said.

He asked to speak with someone higher than the receptionist, who questioned his reasons for the demand.

"I said 'I've been accused of being a terrorist so I would like to talk to someone about this'.

"Her face changed very fast."

Imam Zainadine was allowed through to a back room where he explained his situation.

"I wanted them to know I'm not hiding in the mountains."

He left but has since formed a view that the no-fly listing was behind difficulties he had gaining visas and entering some countries.

It is a problem that he still deals with.

He was not allowed to enter Qatar when he went there last year to do some talks.

"I asked why- they said it was a message from the American government in 2005 saying not to let you in.

"Whenever I travel these days I just expect not to get let in, so if I do get let in it is a bonus."

Imam Zaindine said it was disheartening, especially considering dealings he had with an ASIO officer while in Yemen in 2009 which led to him being issued a new passport.

He said he had also spoken with ASIO officers since then.

"They obviously know I'm not a threat to them."

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