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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.

Yemeni officials did a routine background check on Abdulmutallab and approved his student visa because they were reassured that his passport contained valid visas from the United States and Great Britain, the deputy prime minister said. "He was not on any blacklist."

Abdulmutallab is thought to have traveled in October to Shabwa, a province in southeastern Yemen and a known al-Qaeda stronghold, Alimi said. Investigators are also looking into whether he met al-Qaeda operatives in Marib province, which is adjacent to Shabwa, Alimi said.

Investigators suspect Shabwa was where Abdulmutallab, who allegedly had explosive chemicals sewn into his underwear, was trained and equipped.

The Aulaqi connection

In a remote, mountainous area of Shabwa, Alimi said, the 23-year-old engineering graduate probably met with al-Qaeda operatives in a house built by Aulaqi. Aulaqi had held theological sessions there in the past. Two U.S. sources said it was "plausible" that Abdulmutallab met al-Qaeda operatives there. U.S. officials said it was possible that Aulaqi and Abdulmutallab did not meet in person but added that they had at least talked on the phone.

Alimi described Aulaqi as a "spiritual adviser" to al-Qaeda. Aulaqi's family has denied such links.

Suspected al-Qaeda leaders were thought to be meeting in the house at the time of the Dec. 24 airstrike. U.S. and Yemeni officials said at the time that they believed Aulaqi was also at the meeting. But Alimi said Yemeni authorities now think Aulaqi was not present.

"For sure he was not killed," said Alimi, adding that Aulaqi's family and tribesmen in Shabwa have informed Yemeni authorities that he is alive.

Al-Qaeda's top two regional leaders, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Said Ali al-Shihri, were said to be at the meeting and possibly killed. Alimi said the government was "not sure" whether they were dead.

Alimi said the extent of Aulaqi's role in recruiting and training Abdulmutallab remains unclear. Alimi views Aulaqi more as an inspirational figure rather than an operational one; so do some U.S. officials.

The al-Qaeda contacts

U.S. authorities suspect that Abdulmutallab's radicalization occurred as late as the last several months of 2009. Some of his former teachers and classmates at the language school he attended in August and September said Wednesday that he had planned to go to Hadhramaut province to attend a religious school, where he intended to learn Islamic law. Alimi said Yemeni investigators suspect Abdulmutallab cooked up the plans to disguise his travel to Shabwa, which is close to Hadhramaut.

It is still unclear how Abdulmutallab stayed so long in Yemen. Alimi said the school had extended his visa for the duration of his study. But school officials said they had not asked for an extension. In fact, they had been under the impression that Abdulmutallab was leaving Yemen at the end of September.

Investigators are also his acquaintances in the capital, Sanaa. Alimi said the school's staff members were not suspected of recruiting or radicalizing him. The focus, he said, is on three mosques in the city's historic section that Abdulmutallab frequented. Investigators believe he met one or more al-Qaeda operatives at the mosques who vetted him and then provided further directions and contacts.

"For certain, he would not have left for Shabwa unless he met a contact person here in Sanaa," Alimi said.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Carrie Johnson in Washington contributed to this report.

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