By Greg Miller and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 1, 2010; A09
A radical Muslim cleric who was born in the United States and resides in Yemen "had a direct operational role" in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Wednesday.
The remark by Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is the most specific assertion so far regarding Anwar al-Aulaqi's involvement in the failed plot, which allegedly employed a would-be suicide bomber who is accused of boarding the flight with explosives in his underwear.
Defending the Obama administration's decision to authorize the CIA and the military to kill Aulaqi, Leiter told the Aspen Institute's homeland security forum that the attack could have killed more than 300 people and that "it would be irresponsible not to think about directing all elements of national power to protect the American people."
U.S. officials had previously said that Aulaqi was linked to the attempt, but they had not specified his role.
A second U.S. official said that American intelligence services say Aulaqi provided the key link between the would-be bomber and those who trained him.
"We think Aulaqi helped put [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab in touch with the plotters and trainers of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," the official said, referring to a regional affiliate of the main al-Qaeda organization. "He's more than a propagandist. He's an operational figure, a terrorist who lent his hands to attacks on the United States."
Abdulmutallab, the son of a Nigerian banker, was detained in Detroit after being subdued by other passengers as he allegedly tried to detonate the bomb. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that include attempting to kill the passengers on the plane.
Aulaqi has emerged as an eloquent and unapologetic advocate of violence against the West. His online sermons attract wide international audiences and are a source of particular concern to U.S. authorities because they are delivered in English.
Aulaqi also exchanged e-mails with the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November. Before leaving the United States, Aulaqi preached at mosques in California and Virginia, apparently coming into contact with at least two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that Aulaqi is increasingly involved in the operations of al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen, acting as a recruiter and facilitator who has a deep familiarity with U.S. cities and society. He is not, however, thought to have the skills to lead operations or build a bomb.
The al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen placed a banner on jihadist Web sites this week advertising what it called a new English-language magazine. The online publication is to be called "Inspire" and includes an interview with Aulaqi.
Hsu reported from Aspen, Colo.