The suspect in the failed Christmas Day airliner attack told federal investigators that the radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki directed him to carry out his attempt at mass murder, according to reports published Friday.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been helping in the hunt for al-Awlaki, an extremist cleric who has emerged as a prominent Al Qaeda recruiter since hiding in Yemen. Abdulmutallab has been cooperating with the FBI for about a week, providing information about the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen and al-Awlaki's contacts there, CBS News reported.
The 23-year-old Nigerian's turn against al-Awlaki could provide fresh clues for authorities trying to capture or kill him. Al-Awlaki has been linked to the 9/11 hijackers, the Fort Hood shootings and the botched Christmas Day bombing attempt.
Yemeni officials say they believe al-Awlaki, believed to be in the Gulf nation's remote mountain region, met with Abdulmutallab, but al-Awlaki reportedly denied ordering the attack in an interview that appeared on Al-Jazeera's Web site.
It was not clear when the interview took place or whether it took place in person. The journalist, one of the few said to have direct contacts with al-Awlaki, previously interviewed the cleric after the Fort Hood shooting.
"Brother mujahed Umar Farouk — may God relieve him — is one of my students, yes," al-Awlaki said in the interview which appeared online Tuesday. "We had kept in contact, but I didn't issue a fatwa to Umar Farouk for this operation," al-Awlaki was quoted as saying.
Al-Awlaki said he supported the Christmas attack, but it would have been better if the target was a U.S. military target or plane.
"I support what Umar Farouk did after seeing my brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan being killed," he was quoted as saying. "If it was a military plane or a U.S. military target it would have been better...(but) the American people have participated in all the crimes of their government."
"Some 300 Americans are nothing compared to thousands Muslims they have killed," he said.
Al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and who once preached in mosques in California and northern Virginia, moved to his ancestral hometown in Yemen in 2004. He has become popular among Islamic militant sympathizers for his English-language Internet sermons, in which he explains to young Muslims the philosophy of violent jihad and martyrdom against the West and its allied Muslim and Arab governments.
Al-Awlaki exchanged up to 20 e-mails with the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood attack, U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan months before it. Hasan initiated the contacts, seeking religious advice.
Yemeni officials have said they believe al-Awlaki met with Abdulmuttalab when the Nigerian was in Yemen late last year allegedly to study Arabic.
Yemeni security officials suspect he is involved in recruiting new members for Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen and in dealings between Al Qaeda fighters and Yemeni tribes.
Yemen has attracted renewed and concerted international efforts to fight Al Qaeda. Members of the group have increasingly found refuge in the many mountain ranges of Yemen, where the central government has little control and tribal loyalty is key.
U.S. and Yemen are increasingly cooperating to fight the terror network, with the U.S providing nearly $70 million in military aid, as well as intelligence support, this year.