WASHINGTON - - U.S. counter-terrorism agencies are investigating whether an American-born Islamic cleric who has risen to become a key figure in the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen played a role in the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing over Detroit, intelligence and law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Intercepts and other information point to connections between the terrorism suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Anwar al-Awlaki - who also communicated with the accused U.S. Army gunman in last month's attack on Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 people dead.
Some of the information about al-Awlaki comes from Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with attempting to detonate a hidden packet of PETN explosive aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, the officials said.
Under questioning by the FBI, Abdulmutallab has said that he met with al-Awlaki and senior al-Qaida members during an extended trip to Yemen this year, and that the cleric was involved in some elements of planning or preparing the attack and in providing religious justification for it, they said.
Other intelligence linking al-Awlaki to Abdulmutallab only became apparent after the attempted bombing, including communications intercepted by the National Security Agency that indicated that the cleric was meeting with "a Nigerian" in preparation for some kind of operation, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
Intelligence officers did not realize the importance of that piece of information at the time because the name of the Nigerian was not included, the information was vague and lost in a flood of threat information coming into the NSA.
Al-Awlaki, 38, has been a subject of intense interest and concern to the U.S. government since he emerged as a spiritual leader of several of the Sept. 11 hijackers while preaching at mosques in San Diego and the Washington, D.C., suburbs before the 2001 attacks.
Born in New Mexico, al-Awlaki spent much of his life in the U.S. before moving to London to elude intense FBI scrutiny. He has been living in Yemen for at least five years, spending at least a year in custody.
Since his release, he has used Yemen as a safe haven from which to build his Internet site into a popular global forum to spread jihadist rhetoric and encourage attacks on Western interests.
The FBI has been investigating possible criminal charges against al-Awlaki stemming from his suspected support extremists, including Major Nidal Malik al-Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, an FBI official confirmed Wednesday.
But counter-terrorism officials say that it was only recently that al-Awlaki forged much closer ties to the Yemen-based regional affiliate of Osama bin Laden's terror network, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
And he has done so at a time when the group has stepped up its terrorist operations against U.S. targets in the region and far outside it. On Monday the group claimed credit for training and equipping Abdulmutallab with military-grade explosives for his suicide bombing mission. U.S. officials quickly corroborated the claim.
The two officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the investigation or the classified intelligence-gathering effort against al-Awlaki.
Evan Kohlmann, a government counter-terrorism consultant, said al-Awlaki has been providing fatwas, or decrees, endorsing attacks by al-Qaida in Yemen and also playing a key role in its recruitment efforts, logistics, strategy and communications.
More recently, he said, al-Awlaki has been instrumental in negotiating alliances between the al-Qaida affiliate and powerful Yemeni tribes that protect it from government crackdowns.
U.S. authorities are alarmed by al-Awlaki's new role within the al-Qaida affiliate not only because of those alliances and his influence on the Internet, but because of his familiarity with the United States, its customs and security measures, said the U.S. intelligence official.
"The concern is that now that they are more of a global threat, that he will use his knowledge of the United States to help them," the intelligence official said. "Everybody is looking at that, certainly everyone in the intelligence community."
The FBI official agreed, saying that while there is no reason to doubt them, Abdulmutallab's claims are now being investigated intensively by counter-terrorism authorities on three continents as part of their probes into the Christmas Day attack and the escalating threat of the al-Qaida affiliate to U.S. interests worldwide.
"He's saying all this but we haven't determined all of it is true; whether [al-Awlaki] blessed it or gave the green light or was the impetus behind it," said the FBI official. "It's very possible and it's being investigated. But it's also possible he's saying it to give himself credibility" among militants who look up to al-Awlaki.