By HAMZA HENDAWI and AHMED AL-HAJ
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 2:54 PM
SAN'A, Yemen -- Faced with mounting U.S. pressure to do more in the fight against al-Qaida after the thwarted mail bombs plot, Yemen on Tuesday took the surprise move of putting on trial a fugitive U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric wanted for his part in terror attacks on American soil.
The move is largely symbolic, since Anwar al-Awlaki was being tried in absentia. But it appeared to be an attempt by Yemen's government to show its American allies that it takes the cleric as a serious threat - something it has wavered on in the past.
Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, is one of the most prominent English-language radical clerics, and his sermons advocating jihad, or holy war, against the United States have influenced militants involved in several attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. soil. Yemeni officials say he may have blessed the recent mail bomb plot, though not necessarily took an active part in it.
The Obama administration is considering its own terror charges against the 39-year-old al-Awlaki. But even without charges, it put him on a list of militants the CIA is authorized to capture or kill, after the Christmas attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet by a young Nigerian whom al-Awlaki may have helped recruit for al-Qaida in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki is thought to be hiding in the mountains of Yemen, enjoying the protection of family and his large tribe, while facing what some analysts describe as only a half-hearted effort by the Yemeni authorities to capture or kill him.
Yemeni officials had until now privately insisted that they had no legal justification to detain him and that, if captured, the country's constitution prevents his extradition to the United States because he is a Yemeni citizen.
The trial could signal at least a superficial shift in Yemen's position brought about by U.S. pressure following the interception Friday of two bombs hidden in packages mailed from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area.
The two packages were found on planes transiting through Dubai and Britain. U.S. officials believe the plot is the work of al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, of which al-Awlaki is a top figure.
Washington, which has dispatched a team to help with the investigation into the latest plot, has been frustrated with the limited scope of Yemen's efforts to deal with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group here is called, despite U.S. military aid that has been hiked up to $150 million this year. Yemeni forces have had multiple clashes with al-Qaida fighters this year, but with only ambiguous results, and most senior figures in the group remain at large.
Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, promised President Barack Obama in phone conversation that his government will "continue its efforts in combating terrorism and pursue al-Qaida to crush its terrorist activities," according to Yemen's official news agency, Saba.
Analysts here believe that a combination of regime weakness and Saleh's own political maneuvering have prevented him from launching a full-blown campaign to eliminate al-Qaida, which is believed to have some 300 core members in Yemen. Saleh has to balance among powerful tribes that control most areas outside the capital, as well as among Islamic hard-liners with whom he has allied himself to preserve power.
"The government can, if it wants to, capture al-Awlaki with the cooperation of his tribe, said Yemeni analyst Mansour Hayel. "But it is taking its time, using the al-Qaida threat to milk the United States for more aid."
Saleh's government has tried recently to form tribal militias to aid its forces in fighting al-Qaida. Among those it has approached is the Awalik, a large and powerful tribe based in the mountainous province of Shabwa to which al-Awlaki belongs.
But in a sign of the dangerous nature of tribal politics, Awalik tribesmen belonging to al-Qaida issued a letter on militant websites Tuesday warning their tribe's leaders of "God's punishment" if they help the regime, and urged them to join al-Qaida's fight to overthrow Saleh's regime.
The regime "has pillaged the resources of our country and divvied them up with the Crusaders (Americans), leaving its people to complain of poverty and disease," the letter said. "No one allies with this regime except in hopes of gifts or out of fear of its oppression. You are too good to aspire for gifts and too noble to fear anyone but God."
The letter suggests a split - and such divisions can often lead to violence between tribal factions. But the threat and appeal to strong tribal loyalties could also make Awalik members more reluctant to work with the government.
The trial of al-Awlaki in a San'a court on Tuesday came as a surprise. Al-Awlaki's name and that of a cousin, Ossam al-Awlaki, were added as defendants in absentia at the last minute in the trial of another man, Hisham Assem. Assem has been accused of killing a Frenchman in an Oct. 6 attack at an oil firm compound where he worked as a security guard.
According to the prosecution, Osman al-Awlaki had put Assem indirectly in e-mail contact with Anwar al-Awlaki.
Assem, 19, appeared in court wearing blue prison overalls. He denied all charges and claimed that he had been tortured in detention to make false confessions.
Prosecutor Ali al-Saneaa sought to ridicule Anwar al-Awlaki in his opening statement, portraying him as a self-styled cleric who had in the past worked in "America's bars and restaurants" - suggesting he had broken Islam's ban on alcohol.
"He is the man responsible for criminal schemes in Yemen," al-Saneaa said. "He has an evil personality and is comfortable with bloodletting without conscience or respect for the law."
Al-Saneea said Assem, a guard at the French engineering firm SPIE, told interrogators he received Internet messages from al-Awlaki inciting him to kill foreigners with whom he was working. Assem allegedly confessed that al-Awlaki convinced him that foreigners are "occupiers," then sent him audiotape sermons justifying the killings when he hesitated.
In the attack, Assem followed a French manager and shot him dead in his office, then looked for other foreigners to kill, wounding a British man in the foot, al-Saneaa said. The trial was adjourned to Saturday.
U.S. investigators say al-Awlaki's sermons have been a key inspiration for a string of militants, including possibly the Pakistani man who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square this year, and that he had e-mail contacts with the Army psychiatrist accused of last year's killings at Fort Hood, Texas.
They say that since he returned to Yemen in 2006, he has moved beyond inspiration to take a role as an active operative in al-Qaida's affiliate there.