By ROBERT F. WORTH 01/02/2010 New York Times
SANA, Yemen — Anwar al-Awlaki, the fugitive American-born cleric accused of terrorist ties, acknowledged for the first time that he met with the Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 airliner bomb plot, though he denied any role in the attack, according to a Yemeni journalist who said he met with him.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the fugitive American-born cleric accused of terrorist ties, in 2008.
Mr. Awlaki said he had met and spoken with the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in Yemen last fall, according to the journalist, Abdulelah Hider Sha’ea, who played a digital recording of the cleric’s comments for this reporter.
Although the authenticity of the tape from an interview last week could not be independently verified, the voice resembled that on other recordings of Mr. Awlaki.
“Umar Farouk is one of my students; I had communications with him,” Mr. Awlaki can be heard saying on the recording. “And I support what he did, as America supports Israel’s killing of Palestinians, and its killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Previously, Yemeni officials have said that Mr. Awlaki probably met with Mr. Abdulmutallab, but they have offered no evidence.
Al Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula branch has claimed responsibility for planning the Dec. 25 bombing attempt, in which Mr. Abdulmutallab tried unsuccessfully to bomb an American airliner as it was approaching Detroit, using explosives he had hidden in his underwear.
Mr. Awlaki, 38, said on the recording that he had no part in the planning or execution of the bomb plot. He did not say whether he had advance knowledge of it. “I did not tell him to do this operation, but I support it,” Mr. Awlaki said on the tape, adding that he was proud of Mr. Abdulmutallab.
Mr. Sha’ea writes for a number of publications, including aljazeera.net, and he is a former researcher for the Saba Center for Strategic Studies here. He is the only reporter to have met with the leaders of Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch. Last year, after he interviewed them, the group posted photographs of him with the group’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi.
On the recent tape, Mr. Awlaki exhorted Yemen’s conservative religious scholars — who recently issued an edict warning against further American interference in Yemen — to go further and call for the killing of American military or intelligence officials who assist Yemen’s counterterrorism program. The United States has stepped up its military assistance to Yemen in the past year to counter Al Qaeda’s growing presence here.
Mr. Awlaki’s new call to kill American officials here illustrated once again his radicalism, which has led counterterrorism officials to watch him closely for at least a decade. Born in New Mexico, Mr. Awlaki had contacts with three of the Sept. 11 hijackers at mosques where he worked in San Diego and Falls Church, Va. His eloquent defenses of violent jihad in sermons and on the Internet are widely believed to have radicalized many young Muslims.
Mr. Awlaki also exchanged e-mail messages with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the American Army psychiatrist who faces murder charges in the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November. After those killings, Mr. Awlaki — who left the United States in 2002 — praised Major Hasan as a hero, saying, “Working in the American military to fight Muslims is a betrayal of Islam.”
The Yemeni authorities have been seeking Mr. Awlaki, who was imprisoned for 18 months after his return to Yemen. He is now under the protection of his powerful tribe in remote Shabwa Province, where Mr. Sha’ea said he interviewed him last week. Mr. Awlaki’s personal popularity — and the resonance of his anti-American message — has complicated the task of the government, which has always had limited control over Yemen’s remoter areas.
Yemeni forces carried out an airstrike with American help on a gathering of Qaeda leaders where they believed Mr. Awlaki was present on Dec. 24. But the leaders apparently escaped, and Mr. Awlaki, who does not claim to be a Qaeda member, was not at the site, according to people who know him.
Since then, Yemeni officials have said they are pressuring Mr. Awlaki’s tribe to turn him over. But Mr. Sha’ea said Mr. Awlaki told him that this was not true, and that his tribe was not aware of any negotiations or efforts to detain him.