Even before the bomb scares that set off security alarms on Friday, U.S. security officials have been increasingly concerned about terrorism strikes originating in Yemen. With this incident, suspicions will focus in particular on a U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric in Yemen, who has emerged as a prominent and eloquent advocate for violence against American civilians.
Anwar Al-Awlaki, 39, who was born in New Mexico to parents from Yemen, has become a leading voice for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate calls itself. The Yemen organization is considered “one of the most lethal” affiliates of the core al-Qaida network in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to White House counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan.
Al-Awlaki — originally investigated because of his connections to some of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks — emerged as a focal point of anti-terror efforts in the past year, in large part because of his e-mail exchanges with Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in November 2009.
He may also be connected with the “Christmas Day bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Nigerian student who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight heading to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, says he was trained and equipped in Yemen. Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to attempting a bomb attack on New York City’s Times Square in May, told his interrogators that al-Awlaki had inspired the attempt.
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Al-Awlaki seemed to affirm his connection with both Hasan and Abdulmutallab, describing them as “students” in a video recording released in April. He also praised Hasan for his “heroic and great” act, adding, “I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit.”
Yemen is an ideal breeding ground for extremism, experts say, plagued by tribal and language divisions, high unemployment and severe water shortages. Diplomatic sources say al-Qaida’s presence there has grown over the last 18 months or so, with an increasing number of Saudis and Pakistanis in the mix.
Al-Awlaki is considered especially influential because he is bilingual and can communicate directly with potential radicals in Yemen and outside. Though he spent a portion of his childhood in Yemen, Awlaki returned to the United States to earn his bachelor and post-graduate degrees.
The government of Yemen professes to be an ally of the United States in its war on terror, vowing to track down and kill al-Qaida and other extremists within its borders. But as in Pakistan, the Yemen government’s relationship with the extremists has been complex. In the past, the government in San’a has enlisted jihadis who returned from fighting in Afghanistan to help fight insurgencies on two fronts.
Despite Yemen’s alliance with Washington, which provides substantial military aid, intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Yemen is patchy and frequently as source of tension. San’a complained that the United States failed to share key information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example.
Despite stepped-up intelligence and raids on suspected al-Qaida sites, U.S. and Yemeni efforts to track down al-Awlaki have failed. The cleric, the one American citizen whom U.S. intelligence agencies are authorized to kill on sight, is believed to be hiding in a remote mountainous area in southern Yemen. Like Osama bin Laden, he is said to be constantly on the move. And like bin Laden, analysts say, al-Awlaki’s ability to evade capture has enhanced his prestige among Islamic radicals.