U.S. and allied counterterrorism authorities have launched a global manhunt for English-speaking terrorists trained in Yemen who are planning attacks on the United States, based on intelligence provided by the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day bombing after he began cooperating.
U.S. officials told The Washington Times that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, facing charges as a would-be suicide bomber, revealed during recent cooperation with the FBI that he met with other English speakers at a terrorist training camp in Yemen. Three U.S. intelligence officials, including one senior official, disclosed on the condition of anonymity some details of the additional bomb plots.
Said one official: “It’s safe to say that Abdulmutallab is not the only bullet in the chamber for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” the Islamist terrorist group based in Yemen.
“Farouk took a month to get operational. Once he left [training in Yemen], it did not take very long,” the official said.
Information about the bomb plots was shared with the FBI after Mr. Abdulmutallab’s family traveled from Nigeria to help coax the former student into cooperating, after a period of about five weeks when he refused to help authorities.
The FBI interrogated Mr. Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes after he was arrested on Christmas Day at Detroit Metro Airport upon his arrival on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Officials said the homemade bomb sewn into his underwear failed to detonate but burned him. Had it detonated, the bomb could have killed 289 people aboard the flight.
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen absorbed in 2008 the largely defeated branch of the group in Saudi Arabia. The group has made threats against the United States, and the Obama administration has authorized drone strikes in Yemen against the group and its leaders.
The data about the additional terrorist plots is thought to be one factor behind alarming congressional testimony two weeks ago from senior U.S. intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Mr. Blair said he was “certain” that it was al Qaeda’s priority to attempt an attack on the United States within three to six months.
The increased threat of terrorism emanating from Yemen was outlined in a majority staff report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made public last month. The report warned that U.S. criminals were migrating to Yemen for terrorist training.
“U.S. diplomats and law enforcement officials say that a significant threat to U.S. interests could come from American citizens based in Yemen,” the report said. “Most worrisome is a group of as many as three dozen former criminals who converted to Islam in prison, were released at the end of their sentences, and moved to Yemen, ostensibly to study Arabic.”
The Yemen-based al Qaeda group’s chief ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, is reported to have helped radicalize Mr. Abdulmutallab after he traveled to Yemen from Britain, ostensibly to study Arabic.
Al-Awlaki was also in contact with Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the officer accused of killing 13 of his fellow service members during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.
Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, has established a Web presence in English for al Qaeda, something the terrorist organization had lacked until recently. Most of al Qaeda’s chat rooms, considered hotbeds for Internet radicalization, are in Arabic.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview, “For an extended period of time, we have known they have wanted to radicalize and recruit English-speaking people because they recognize these individuals had easier access into the United States.”
“I am not at all surprised by that. I was not surprised by the Christmas Day bomber. I am not surprised at all that there are those that believe that there are other English speakers out there,” Mr. Hoesktra said.
Mr. Hoekstra and his Senate intelligence committee counterpart, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, have said publicly that it was a mistake for the FBI to read Mr. Abdulmutallab his constitutional rights as a criminal after he was detained in Detroit. When he was arrested, a high value interrogation group that the Obama administration had established for questioning terrorists was not completely operational.
The White House has defended the decision to treat Mr. Abdulmutallab as a criminal on the grounds that the suspect’s family has coaxed him into cooperating, something that likely would not have occurred had he not been afforded access to counsel.