SANA, Yemen — Yemeni special forces launched an offensive Tuesday in rugged terrain, searching for an al-Qaida bombmaker believed to have designed explosives concealed in printer cartridges that were intercepted in two packages last week before reaching the United States.
The hunt for Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi-born munitions expert, intensified in militant strongholds in Shabwa and Marib provinces. It is the third major operation against al-Qaida in recent months but one that has taken on new urgency since a plot to blow up aircraft over the United States was uncovered Friday.
Asiri is alleged to have rigged the explosives in a 2009 suicide bombing carried out by his brother in the failed assassination of Saudi Arabia's intelligence director. He also is suspected of building a bomb to hide in the underwear of a Nigerian student, who has been charged in a bungled attempt to bring down a U.S. airliner last December.
The military incursion to find Asiri and other fighters in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula began the same day Yemen filed charges against American-born radical cleric Anwar Awlaki. Prosecutors accused him of "plotting to kill foreigners" in the Oct. 6 slaying of a French manager at an oil compound.
Awlaki, a charismatic speaker who has emerged as an al-Qaida leader, will be tried in absentia with his cousin, Osman Awlaki. The charges were read during a hearing for Hisham Assem, a security guard who shot the Frenchman.
Prosecutor Ali Saneaa said Assem was inspired to kill foreigners after listening to audiotapes and sermons sent to him by Awlaki. The narrative is similar to accusations by U.S. officials that Awlaki's teachings prompted a killing rampage last year at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly carried out by an Army psychiatrist, and instigated the Nigerian in his alleged attack on a Detroit-bound airplane.
"They had been hunting him without charges. Now, they have legal justification, and it will allow the Yemen and U.S. governments to better cooperate on his capture," said Saeed Ali Jemhi, an expert on al-Qaida.
But, said Jemhi, "The military campaign against al-Qaida is just more propaganda. … It is the result of U.S. pressure following the discovery of the package bombs."
The two governments, however, ultimately may be in dispute over the cleric's fate. Yemeni officials say Awlaki is a citizen of Yemen and will not be handed over to the United States. The Obama administration wants to try Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico of Yemeni parents, but also reportedly has placed him on a CIA target list for assassination or capture.