The Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner had his suicide mission personally blessed in Yemen by Anwar al-Awlaki, the Muslim imam suspected of radicalizing the Fort Hood shooting suspect, a U.S. intelligence source has told The Washington Times.
The intelligence official, who is familiar with the FBI’s interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, said the bombing suspect has boasted of his jihad training to the FBI and has said it included final exhortations by Mr. al-Awlaki.
“It was Awlaki who indoctrinated him,” the official said. “He was told, ‘You are going to be the tip of the spear of the Muslim nation.’ ”
Mr. al-Awlaki, an American-born imam who once led a large Northern Virginia mosque but now lives in Yemen, has gained notoriety in recent months because of his influence on Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim accused of killing 13 people at the Texas military base.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit Monday for the Christmas Day attack on Northwest Airlines 253, an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. The al Qaeda group and U.S. officials both say that Mr. Abdulmutallab was able to smuggle explosive powder in his underwear and only a detonator failure prevented him from blowing up the plane and killing almost 300 passengers and crew.
On Tuesday, President Obama made his second public address on the attack, saying there had been a “systemic failure” in intelligence-sharing among U.S. agencies.
He characterized the lapse as “totally unacceptable,” distancing himself further from Sunday’s widely derided comments by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that “the system worked.”
Also Tuesday, Democrats reacted to criticism that the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees U.S. flight security, still does not have a top administrator. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, vowed to ensure confirmation of Eroll Southers and blamed Republicans for holding up the nomination.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he has learned of personal ties between Mr. Abdulmutallab and Mr. al-Awlaki, though he said he could neither confirm nor deny that the two men had been in the same Yemeni prayer room.
“From what I’ve heard, the relationship would have been closer than what Awlaki had with Hasan,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Times. “He trusted [Mr. Abdulmutallab] more.”
Mr. al-Awlaki had e-mail contact with Maj. Hasan as many as 20 times between December 2008 and the shootings at Fort Hood. Mr. al-Awlaki praised Maj. Hasan as a “hero” and said all Muslims in the U.S. military should “follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”
Monday’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula statement spoke similarly, calling on every “soldier who works for the crusader armies” to “emulate the example of the heroic [mujahedeen] brother, Nidal Hasan.”
According to the U.S. intelligence official, Mr. Abdulmutallab cited Maj. Hasan in his interrogations, but only to cite him as “an example of how Islam accepts even American soldiers.” Mr. Abdulmutallab did not show any operational knowledge of the Army major or the Fort Hood attack.
In his FBI interrogation, according to the U.S. intelligence official, Mr. Abdulmutallab spoke of being in a room in Yemen receiving Muslim blessings and prayers from Mr. al-Awlaki, along with a number of other men “all covered up in white martyrs’ garments,” and known only by code names and “abu” honorifics.
The official said such clothing and the lack of familiarity among the men suggests that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula intends to use the men in that room in suicide missions.
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.
In December, U.S.-backed Yemeni forces made at least two unsuccessful attempts to kill Mr. al-Awlaki. The latest was the day before the Detroit plane was to be attacked. In its Monday statement, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the Northwest plot was launched in response to recent “American aggression” in Yemen.
However, Mr. Hoekstra expressed skepticism about claims that the bombing plot was retaliation for the December strikes because the terrorist attack likely would have been in the works long before then. He described the timing of the U.S. strikes as simply giving al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a convenient peg for saying its airplane plot was retaliatory.
The Yemeni Foreign Ministry said Monday that Mr. Abdulmutallab had been in the country from August to early December, having received a visa to study Arabic at the San’a Institute for the Arabic Language. A trip to Yemen to learn Arabic was also a major step in the radicalization of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.”
According to an Associated Press dispatch from San’a, Yemen’s capital, the Yemeni Embassy in the U.S. has been told not to issue student visas without Interior Ministry approval. The school’s director also is being questioned by Yemeni authorities.
• Ben Conery contributed to this report.