Officials: Terror suspect may have ties to al-Qaeda network in Yemen

By Michael D. Shear, Spencer S. Hsu and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; 5:09 PM

Federal officials have strongly suggested to lawmakers that the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight has connections to the al Qaeda terrorist network in Yemen, according to a senior member of Congress in the House.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said Saturday that a federal official has briefed lawmakers about "strong suggestions of a Yemen-al Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace."

Harman said that while intelligence on Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab did not result in putting him on a "no fly" list, the process by which terrorism-related information is vetted and shared among government databases must be tightened, without an overreaction that threatens civil liberties or overwhelms counter terrorism officials with irrelevant information.

The possible connection to Yemen comes just days after the Yemeni government -- with the support of the United States -- launched a major attack against the leaders of the terrorist network in their country known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

U.S. officials believe that cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to the shooting massacre at Fort Hood last month, was probably killed in the assault, as were two al-Qaeda leaders, according to a senior Obama administration official.

A Yemeni government official said his government is looking into claims that Abdulmutallab came to Yemen to pick up the explosive device and instructions on how and when to deploy it. But the official cautioned it could take time before Yemeni immigration authorities could determine if he entered the country. His name is relatively common and also can be spelled in different ways.

A second Yemeni official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said U.S. authorities have yet to provide any information on the incident to the Yemeni government. "If and when the would-be bomber's alleged link to Yemen is officially identified, authorities will take immediate action," the official said.

Al-Qaeda's network in Yemen on Oct. 29 released an article that encouraged would-be members to use readily available small explosives to kill Westerners and apostates, including aboard planes and in airports, according to Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst with the NEFA Foundation, a private group that monitors extremist websites.

Kohlmann said that in the latest edition of the Yemen group's official magazine, Sada al-Malahim, top local commander Abu Basir al-Wahishi wrote that as few as "10 grams of explosives" assembled from materials "in your mother's kitchen" could be used to fashion grenades, suicide bombs or be packed inside electronic devices such as a stereo or items such as envelopes or picture frames.

Bomb "with it any tyrant, or intelligence forces den, or a prince, or a minister, or a crusader wherever you find them," Wahishi wrote, "and also in airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways."

If Abdulmutallab is linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it wouldn't be the first time that the terrorist group has tried to sneak in explosive material past security checks. In August, Abdullah Hassan Tali Assiri, a suicide bomber sent by the network entered from Yemen into Saudi Arabia with explosives on his body. He was on his way to meet with Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, a senior member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family and head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations. Assiri, a Saudi national, had informed Nayef that he was going to renounce al-Qaeda.

The prince sent his plane to the southern Saudi border city of Najran to pick up Assiri. He was taken by the prince's bodyguards to his heavily guarded house. During the evening, Assiri's explosives were detonated, triggered by a cell phone call. The prince suffered minor injuries.

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