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Investigators scrutinize Yemeni American cleric's ties to plane suspect

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 1, 2010

SANAA, YEMEN -- Investigators of the Christmas Day attempt to bring down a U.S. airliner are increasingly focused on the role of a radical Yemeni American cleric previously linked to the Fort Hood shootings, suspecting that he may have been involved in guiding the Nigerian man charged in last week's failed plane attack, Yemeni and U.S. officials say.

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The extent of the contacts between the cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, and the plane suspect are growing more apparent as investigators continue their probe. A U.S. intelligence official said Thursday that "there was probably a face-to-face encounter" between Aulaqi and the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, during a stay in Yemen before the Nigerian man flew to Amsterdam and boarded Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Separately, a top Yemeni government official said Abdulmutallab had probably met with suspected al-Qaeda operatives in a house that had been used by Aulaqi.

The house was subsequently destroyed in a Dec. 24 U.S.-backed Yemeni airstrike targeting an apparent meeting of suspected al-Qaeda leaders. Yemen's deputy prime minister for defense and security affairs, Rashad al-Alimi, said Thursday that Aulaqi was thought to be alive, despite earlier suggestions by Obama administration officials that the cleric had been killed in the attack.

Aulaqi, who once led prayers at a Northern Virginia mosque, became a focus of authorities' attention after the Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood in Texas, which killed13 people. Aulaqi had traded e-mails with the alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, in the months before the attack. Aulaqi has said that he considers Hasan a "hero" but has denied inciting the Fort Hood rampage.

Aulaqi earlier developed a following on the Internet among radical Muslims because of his fiery sermons, and he has recently emerged as a key figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda branch suspected to be at the heart of the Christmas Day plot.

Yemenis cite U.S. lapses

It is not known how Aulaqi and Abdulmutallab first made contact, but a U.S. government official said Thursday that "it's clear that Aulaqi was very, very aware of this individual."

That revelation came as Yemeni officials decried a lack of U.S. cooperation in the months leading up to the foiled attack. Alimi said American authorities did not alert Yemen when U.S. intelligence learned in August that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to set in motion "a Nigerian bomber."

Nor were the Yemenis informed that Abdulmutallab's father had raised concerns to U.S. officials in November that his son was in Yemen and was growing radicalized, Alimi said. Abdulmutallab was in the country from Aug. 4 to Dec. 7.

"If we had received the information at the appropriate time, our security apparatus could have taken obvious measures to stop him," Alimi said. "We believe the lack of sharing intelligence was a shortcoming that enabled the Nigerian to carry out such an attack."

U.S. officials said they did not realize the importance of the intelligence at the time and did not disclose it to one another, let alone foreign governments. The CIA declined to comment.

Using school as a 'cover'

Yemeni investigators say Abdulmutallab was probably recruited by al-Qaeda operatives before he came to Yemen in August. The Yemenis say he obtained a visa to study at the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language, where he had studied for several months in 2004 and 2005. Students can extend their visas relatively easily in Yemen once they have been approved to enter the country, Alimi said. Former classmates and teachers said Wednesday that Abdulmutallab had a good command of Arabic when he arrived.

The school, Alimi said, "was a cover."


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