- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | The Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas met in Yemen’s remote mountains with regional al Qaeda leaders, possibly including a radical American cleric who was also in contact with the Fort Hood shooting suspect, Yemen’s deputy prime minister said Thursday.

However, Rashad al-Alimi insisted that 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was recruited by al Qaeda in Britain, before he arrived in Yemen last summer, and that he obtained the explosives used in the failed airliner attack after he left Yemen.

Mr. al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister in charge of defense and security, offered his government’s most detailed account yet of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s activities in the months leading up to the bombing attempt. He disappeared in Yemen for weeks before leaving the country on Dec. 4.

Mr. al-Alimi said Mr. Abdulmutallab met with al Qaeda members in Rafad, a region tucked into an imposing wall of high mountains about 200 miles southeast of the capital. The sparsely populated region of craggy, desert peaks creased with valleys is in Shabwa province.

Among those he may have met with there was U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

“There is no doubt that he met and had contacts with al Qaeda elements in Shabwa, … perhaps with al-Awlaki,” Mr. al-Alimi told reporters.

“I believe this place is indeed associated with Anwar al-Awlaki,” he added.

The Washington Times first disclosed the meeting in its Dec. 30 editions.

The Awlak tribe, to which the cleric belongs, dominates much of the area.

A day before the Christmas bombing attempt, Yemeni warplanes, backed by U.S. intelligence, struck the same location. The Dec. 24 strike targeted a gathering of al Qaeda leaders, possibly including al-Awlaki, as well as the head of al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen and his deputy, Mr. al-Alimi said. They are thought to have survived, but Yemeni officials say at least 30 militants were killed.

Mr. al-Alimi said the site was “the same one where the Nigerian met with al Qaeda elements.”

The assault was one of a series of heavy air strikes and raids Yemeni forces carried out last month. They were the biggest strikes in years by Yemen against al Qaeda in a new intensified alliance with the United States to uproot the terrorist group’s offshoot here.

In the past week, Yemen has beefed up its ground forces in several provinces, setting up checkpoints and conducting searches - particularly north of the capital, where it is hunting for the leader of a cell thought to have plotted attacks on the U.S. Embassy and other embassies in San’a.

Mr. al-Alimi’s comments fueled growing and longtime suspicions over al-Awlaki’s role in al Qaeda.

The 38-year-old cleric, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, is a popular figure among al Qaeda sympathizers, known for his English-language sermons preaching 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.

Al-Awlaki has been linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Nov. 5 mass shooting at the Fort Hood, Texas, Army post, in which 13 people were killed. Months earlier, al-Awlaki exchanged dozens of e-mails with Maj. Hasan, and al-Awlaki later praised the attack.

Yemeni officials have depicted him as a “spiritual adviser” to al Qaeda militants. But last week, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said al-Awlaki is “clearly a part of al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula. He’s not just a cleric. He is in fact trying to instigate terrorism.”

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