Yemen on Thursday provided the most comprehensive account yet of contacts between al-Qaida and the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner, saying he may have met with a radical U.S.-born cleric who previously had contact with the alleged Fort Hood shooter.
In the weeks before the attempted airliner attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab met with al-Qaida operatives in a remote mountainous region that was later hit in an airstrike that targeted a gathering of the group's top leaders, Yemen's deputy prime minister said.
The account by Rashad al-Alimi, who oversees security issues in the government, filled in some of the blanks in Abdulmutallab's movements before his failed attempt to detonate explosives on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit.
But al-Alimi also raised new questions. He contended that Abdulmutallab was recruited by al-Qaida in Britain and that the 23-year-old received the explosives in Nigeria. U.S. officials say Abdulmutallab told FBI investigators that al-Qaida operatives in Yemen gave him the material and trained him in how to use it.
In a speech Thursday, President Barack Obama outlined three broad areas where U.S. agencies fell short in addressing the threat, failing to "connect the dots" that would have revealed Abdulmutallab was planning an attack. He also announced steps to prevent such failure again.
Meeting in the mountains
Abdulmutallab came to Yemen in August, ostensibly to study Arabic at a San'a language institute where he previously studied from 2004-2005. But he disappeared in September, and his whereabouts were unknown until he left the country Dec. 4.
Al-Alimi said that at some point during that period, the Nigerian met with al-Qaida in a sparsely populated area of Shabwa province amid high mountains some 200 miles southeast of the capital.
Among those he may have met with was the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has also been linked to the gunman who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in November.
"There is no doubt that he met and had contacts with al-Qaida elements in Shabwa ... perhaps with al-Awlaki," al-Alimi told reporters.
The Awlak tribe, to which the cleric belongs, dominates much of the area.
The 38-year-old cleric, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, is a popular figure among al-Qaida sympathizers, known for his English-language Internet sermons that preach jihad, or holy war, against the West. A decade ago, while preaching at U.S. mosques, he associated with two of the 9/11 hijackers.
A person who knows al-Awlaki described him as “smart, charismatic, good looking, well spoken and extremely persuasive."
"He leans in when he speaks to you, gives you his full attention, makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world," the person told NBC News. "If he has a piece of bread, he’ll tear it in half and give you the bigger piece."
Al-Awlaki’s "soft approach" is the opposite of that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, who famously personally beheaded American Nick Berg on camera. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a bombing raid by U.S. jets in 2006.
“He could be another bin Laden," the associate told NBC. "He’s inspirational.”
E-mails with Fort Hood attacker
Al-Awlaki exchanged dozens of e-mails with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan in the months before Hasan allegedly carried out the Nov. 5 mass shooting at the Fort Hood, Texas Army post.
Later, al-Awlaki praised the attack on his Web site, which has since been shut down.
While Yemen calls al-Awlaki a spiritual adviser to al-Qaida militants, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, last week said he is "clearly a part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" trying to instigate terrorism.
On Dec. 24, the day before Abdulmutallab's alleged bombing attempt, Yemeni warplanes raided the Shabwa site, targeting a gathering of al-Qaida leaders that may have included al-Awlaki, as well as the head of al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen and his deputy, al-Alimi said.
Al-Alimi said security forces tracked the group's leader, Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri, after the strike and they were in a "weak state." He would not clarify if that meant they were wounded, and said he could not confirm if they are alive. At least 30 militants were killed in the strike, Yemeni officials said.
The assault was one of a series of heavy airstrikes and raids Yemeni forces carried out last month. They were the biggest strikes in years by Yemen against al-Qaida in a new intensified alliance with the United States to uproot the terror group's offshoot here.
Tribes offer refuge
In the past week, Yemen has beefed up its ground forces in several provinces, setting up checkpoints and conducting searches. On Thursday, the Interior Ministry announced it had arrested a 25-year-old al-Qaida member in Marib, a province neighboring Shabwa that is also a stronghold for the terror group. The ministry did not identify the suspect and gave no details on his capture.
Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters are believed to operating in Yemen, many finding refuge with tribes disgruntled with the government, which has little control outside the capital and is burdened with crises.
Abdulmutallab first came to Yemen in 2004 and stayed for a year to study Arabic at the San'a school. He then moved to Britain, where he lived until 2008.
Al-Alimi insisted that Yemen's investigations have shown that during Abdulmutallab's first stint in Yemen, "he did not have any tendency or behavior indicating extremist ideas."
"During the period he was living in Britain, I believe he was recruited by radical groups in Britain," he said.
Officials in Britain have said he met with extremist there, but he was not seen as a threat.