SAN'A, Yemen – The Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas may have met with a radical American-Yemeni cleric linked to Al Qaeda and the alleged Fort Hood shooter to prepare for the failed attack, Yemen's deputy prime minister said Thursday.
Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for defense and security, said 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab met with Al Qaeda members in a remote area far from any population center in the Yemeni province of Shabwa in the months before the attack. He said he believed that place is connected to the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
"There is no doubt that he met and had contacts with Al Qaeda elements in Shabwa, ... perhaps with al-Awlaki," al-Alimi told reporters. "I believe this place is indeed associated with Anwar al-Awlaki," he added.
On Dec. 24, Yemeni forces, with the help of U.S. intelligence, launched an airstrike against a hideout in Shabwa where they said Al Qaeda leaders were holding a meeting. They claimed at least 30 militants were killed. There were rumors at the time that al-Awlaki was killed in that strike, but they were later denied by his family and quickly discredited by local tribesmen.
Al-Alimi said the site was "the same one where the Nigerian met with Al Qaeda elements" earlier. But he did not specify when.
Following the Dec. 24 airstrike, local tribesman Abu Bakr al-Awlaki, said the radical cleric was in Shabwa, southeast of the capital San'a, at the time of the strike. But he said the cleric was not in the area of the attack at the time and was not injured. The tribesman is not related to the cleric, but they come from the same tribe.
Another local tribesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, has said al-Awlaki was seen roaming around in Shabwa in his car a week before the airstrike.
Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to set off explosives on an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas day. But the explosives didn't go off, burning him instead as other passengers wrestled him to the ground. He has since told U.S. investigators he received the explosives and was trained in their use by Al Qaeda members in Yemen, according to American officials.
He came to Yemen in August, ostensibly to study Arabic at a San'a school. But he disappeared in September until he left the country on Dec. 4. During that time, Yemen suspects he met al-Awlaki and leaders of Al Qaeda in Shabwa, al-Alimi said.
Al-Awlaki has been linked to U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged gunman in the Nov. 5 mass shooting at the Fort Hood, Texas Army post in which 13 people were killed. Months earlier, al-Awlaki exchanged dozens of e-mails with the accused shooter, and al-Awlaki later praised the attack.
The Dec. 24 strike targeted a gathering of Al Qaeda leaders who were plotting new attacks, al-Alimi said. Among those believed to have been at the meeting were al-Awlaki and the leader of Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen, Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri. All three are believed to have escaped.
A mid-level Al Qaeda leader who was confirmed killed in the strike, Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair, had also met with Abdulmutallab earlier, al-Alimi said.
Al-Awlaki, born in the United States to Yemeni parents and now in hiding in Yemen, is an influential cleric among Al Qaeda sympathizers, known for his sermons extolling jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. His role is generally seen as an ideologue who gives religious advice and rulings, but he is suspected of having a role in recruiting for Al Qaeda or helping in its relations with Yemeni tribes.
Yemeni security forces have arrested a number of Al Qaeda members who had contact with Abdulmutallab, the deputy prime minister said, without identifying them.
"We are pursing many of many of these elements that are connected to this subject. Some of these elements have been killed, others have been arrested and are being investigated. We will announce the results of these investigations later."
Al-Alimi claimed Abdulmutallab was first recruited by Al Qaeda when he lived in London from 2005-2008.
"During the period he was living in Britain, I believe he was recruited by radical groups in Britain," he told reporters.