The intelligence official’s description comes in the wake of several reports that Yemen is breeding scores of jihadists ready to strike the West.
Yemen’s top diplomat said Tuesday that hundreds of al Qaeda militants are in his country and pleaded for foreign help and intelligence in rooting them out.
“They may actually plan attacks like the one we have just had in Detroit. There are maybe hundreds of them — 200, 300,” Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Times of London.
The Sun also reported Monday that “British extremists in Yemen [who] are in their early 20s and from Bradford, Luton and Leytonstone, East London … are due to return to the U.K. early in 2010 and will then await Internet instructions from al Qaeda on when to strike.”
The British tabloid quoted an unnamed Scotland Yard source as saying, “We know there are four or five radicalized British Muslim cells in Yemen.”
While the U.S. intelligence official cautioned that Mr. Abdulmutallab may simply have been boasting to his FBI interrogators, he told them that “this is just the beginning.”
“I beat your security, and you can’t stop us,” the intelligence official cited Mr. Abdulmutallab as telling the FBI.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen also is being boosted by the release of detainees from U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At least three current or recent al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders — Ibrahim Rubaish, Said Ali al-Shihri and Muhammad Attik al-Harbi — were released to Saudi Arabia in 2006 and 2007.
Two other former Guantanamo inmates — Fahd Saleh Suleiman al Jutayli and Yousef Mohammed al Shihri — have been killed in shootouts with Yemeni and Saudi security forces after having joined the al Qaeda group.
But the Obama administration insisted Tuesday that the Detroit attack and the revelations about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would not change its plans to close the Cuban facility and house terror detainees at a federal prison in Thomson, Ill.
“The detention facility at Guantanamo has been used by Al Qaeda as a rallying cry and recruiting tool, including its affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As our military leaders have recognized, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo is a national security imperative,” a White House source told Politico on the condition of anonymity.
Later Tuesday, three hawkish senators — Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — called on the Obama administration at least to halt releases to Yemen in light of the situation there and the Detroit attack.
“In view of these events, the planned repatriation of six Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay is especially alarming,” the three men said in a joint statement Tuesday. “The current conditions and threat of AQAP activities are clear evidence of the danger in repatriating these Yemeni detainees. … We request an immediate halt to the transfer of all detainees to Yemen until the American people and the Congress can be assured of the security situation in that country.
One reason Mr. al-Awlaki is so dangerous to the U.S., terrorism scholars and analysts say, is that he is a native speaker of English and a longtime U.S. resident. This gives him the cultural familiarity and shared experience to recruit jihadists and terrorists from among the millions of Muslims in the West who may be unreachable by Middle Eastern imams.
The intelligence official said Mr. Abdulmutallab speaks English with a heavy British accent, which he may have picked up either during his 2005-08 studies in London or in his native Nigeria, a former British colony where his father is a wealthy banker.