SANA, Yemen — A senior Yemeni official says the Nigerian man accused of trying to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day might have met with suspected al-Qaida operatives in a house used by a radical Yemeni-American cleric.
Rashad Mohammed al-Alimi, Yemen's deputy prime minister for defense and security affairs, also said the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, is believed to be alive. It was the first such statement from Yemen's government on the fate of the U.S.-born preacher, who also has been linked to the gunman accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5. Obama administration officials have said Awlaki was killed in a Dec. 24 airstrike on a house in southeastern Yemen where he had met with the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Alimi said U.S. authorities did not alert Yemen when CIA operatives learned in August that al-Qaida 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.
Alimi said the investigation is focusing on the Shabwa province in southeastern Yemen, a known al-Qaida stronghold, where Abdulmutallab might have been in October. Investigators, he said, believe this was where Abdulmutallab was trained and equipped with explosive chemicals sewn into his underwear
In Shabwa, the 23-year-old engineering graduate met with al-Qaida operatives in a house built by Awlaki to hold theological sessions, said Alimi. Suspected al-Qaida leaders were believed to be meeting with Awlaki in the house at the time of the Dec. 24 airstrike. U.S. and Yemeni authorities say Awlaki has strong ties to al-Qaida.
U.S. investigators have said Awlaki was in contact by e-mail with Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused in the Fort Hood attack.
Awlaki has said he considers Hasan a "hero" but has denied encouraging the Fort Hood attack.
Airport security missteps under review
U.S. security chiefs briefed President Barack Obama on Thursday about missteps in the lead-up to the attempted Detroit jetliner bombing. Obama will hold meetings in Washington next week on fixing the failures of the nation's antiterrorism policy. Obama spoke separately with counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who announced she was dispatching senior department officials to international airports to review their security procedures. The Senate Intelligence Committee announced Jan. 21 hearings as part of an investigation.
Nigeria underusing full-body scanners
The United States gave Nigeria four full-body scanners for its international airports in 2008 to detect explosives and drugs, but none was used on the man suspected of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight, Nigerian officials say. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tracked by cameras through the security check, only went through a metal detector and had his bag X-rayed, the officials say. A spokesman for the antidrug agency that operates the Nigerian machines said the one at Lagos airport is used sporadically and only on potential narcotics smugglers. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport has 15 scanners, but the United States has discouraged their routine use on privacy grounds.
Somalis release man in airport incident
In a setback for U.S. investigators, a Somali official said Thursday that another suspect who tried to board a plane with chemicals already had been freed. His release last month will hamper efforts to learn whether the incident in Mogadishu was linked to the attempted attack against the U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day. Terrorism analysts had said the arrest in Somalia could prove highly valuable to the U.S. investigation. The Somali police commissioner, Gen. Ali Hassan Loyan, said a Somali court released the suspect Dec. 12 after ruling that officials hadn't demonstrated he intended to commit a crime.