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Airliner terror suspect linked to cleric

US-born preacher believed still alive, Yemen official says

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / January 1, 2010

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SANA, Yemen - Yemeni investigators believe the Nigerian man who allegedly attempted to bomb a US airliner on Christmas Day might have met with suspected Al Qaeda operatives in a house used by a radical Yemeni American cleric, a senior Yemeni official said yesterday.

In an extensive interview, Rashad Mohammed al-Alimi, Yemen’s deputy prime minister for defense and security affairs, also said the cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, is believed to be alive. It was the first such statement from Yemen’s government on the fate of the US-born preacher, who has been linked to the gunman who allegedly killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5. Obama administration officials have said they believe Aulaqi was killed in a Dec. 24 air strike on a house in southeastern Yemen where he had met with the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Alimi said US authorities did not alert Yemen when CIA operatives learned in August that the militant group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to set in motion “a Nigerian bomber.’’

Nor were the Yemenis informed that Abdulmutallab’s father had raised concerns in November about his son’s growing Islamic radicalism, Alimi said. Abdulmutallab was in Yemen from August until December.

“If we had received the information at the appropriate time, our security apparatus could have taken obvious measures to stop him,’’ Alimi said.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday that the United States gave Nigeria four full-body scanners for its international airports in 2008 to detect explosives and drugs, but none were used on the man suspected of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight, Nigerian officials say. Abdulmutallab, tracked by cameras through the security check, only went through a metal detector and had his bag X-rayed when he arrived at Nigeria’s busiest airport to start his journey, the officials say.

The Soter RS scanners deliver 3-D images that would have shown something hidden under clothing. But a spokesman for the anti-drug agency, which operates the Nigerian machines, told the Associated Press that the one at Lagos airport is used sporadically and only on potential narcotics smugglers.

After clearing security at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Abdulmutallab flew to Amsterdam, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and allegedly lit an explosive device hidden in his underpants as the plane approached Detroit on Christmas.

Even word of the scanners’ presence in Nigeria’s four main airports apparently hasn’t reached top officials, including one responsible for airline safety.

Harold Demuren, the head of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters Wednesday that his government would buy 3-D full-body scanners for the airports, and insisted there were currently none there.

But yesterday, Ofoyeju Mitchell of Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, told the AP that one of the machines sits in a room near the security checkpoint in Lagos’s often chaotic international airport.

Abdulmutallab’s former teachers and students at the Arabic-language school he attended in August and September said Wednesday that he had planned to go to Hadhramout Province to attend a religious school, where he intended to learn Islamic sharia law. Yemeni investigators believe that Abdulmutallab revealed this to classmates and teachers to disguise his travel to Shabwa, which is close to Hadhramout, said Alimi.

Yemeni investigators now believe that Abdulmutallab used the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language to obtain a visa to enter Yemen.