Investigators scrutinize Yemeni American cleric's ties to plane suspect

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 1, 2010; A01

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.

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."

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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