By Sudarsan Raghavan
Friday, January 8, 2010; A12
SANAA, YEMEN -- In its strongest language yet, Yemen's government declared Thursday that there are limits to its military cooperation with the United States, warning that any direct U.S. action in this impoverished Middle Eastern nation could bolster the popularity of Islamist militants.
"If there is direct intervention by the United States, it will strengthen al-Qaeda," warned Rashad al-Alimi, Yemen's deputy prime minister for security and defense. "We cannot accept any foreign troops on Yemeni territory."
The statement underscored the rising concern among Yemen's leadership about a domestic backlash that could politically weaken the government and foment more instability. In recent days, top Yemeni officials have publicly played down their growing ties to Washington, fearing that they will be perceived by their opponents as weak and beholden to the United States.
Alimi, speaking at a crowded news conference Thursday, also said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who allegedly tried to bomb an American airliner on Christmas Day, had likely met with Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi. Aulaqi is also linked to Nidal M. Hasan, the U.S. Army major who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., on Nov 5.
Some news organizations reported definitively that Abdulmutallab had met with Aulaqi, while others translated Alimi's comments in Arabic to mean that the pair "likely met."
Discussing Abdulmutallab's stay last year in Yemen, Alimi echoed an account he gave The Washington Post in an interview last week. He said Abdulmutallab had traveled to Shabwa province, where he likely met with al-Qaeda operatives in a house owned by Aulaqi.
Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen in August, ostensibly to study at an Arabic-language school in the capital, Sanaa. School officials said he left the school in late September, clutching an exit visa. But authorities believe that instead of leaving Yemen, he traveled to Shabwa. The Nigerian left Yemen on Dec. 4, Alimi said.
U.S. investigators say they think that the airliner plot originated in Yemen and that Abdulmutallab received chemical explosives and training during his stay in the country.
But Alimi asserted Thursday that Abdulmutallab had received the chemical explosives for the failed attack in Nigeria. It was unclear how the engineering graduate could have received explosives there: Flight records show that he spent four hours in the Lagos airport on Dec. 24 before boarding a KLM flight to Amsterdam. He then boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit.
Asked what proof he had that the explosives were obtained in Nigeria, Alimi replied: "That question should be directed at the Nigerian authorities and the Dutch government. It's not related to the Yemeni security apparatus."
In an extensive accounting of a Dec. 17 U.S.-backed operation, the Yemeni government said its security forces "had seized a group of terrorists" in possession of the same explosives used in an attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in August, according to a report published by the state-run Saba news agency this week.
Investigators say they think such explosives were also used in the attempted airliner bombing, in which Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to detonate chemical powders that were sewn into his underwear.