The Nigerian suspect in a failed Christmas Day airliner bombing turned against the cleric who claims to be his teacher and has helped the U.S. hunt for the radical preacher, a law enforcement official said Thursday.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who faces terrorism charges in the Christmas bombing, has been cooperating with the FBI for days, providing information about his contacts in Yemen and the al-Qaida affiliate that operates there.
His cooperation talking about U.S.-born Yemeni radical Anwar al-Awlaki is significant because it could provide fresh clues for authorities trying to capture or kill him in the remote mountains of Yemen. Al-Awlaki has emerged as a prominent al-Qaida recruiter and has been tied to the 9/11 hijackers, Abdulmutallab and the suspect in November's deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.
The law enforcement official would not say what information Abdulmutallab provided, but al-Awlaki himself said in a recent interview that he and Abdulmutallab had kept in contact. A senior U.S. intelligence official said al-Awlaki represented the biggest name on the list of people Abdulmutallab might have information against. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive ongoing investigation.
Abdulmutallab's cooperation with U.S. authorities is at the center of a political dispute in Washington. Democrats say it proves the Obama administration was correct to handle the case as a criminal matter. Republicans accuse the administration of leaking details for political purposes.
Abdulmutallab agreed to cooperate after FBI agents flew to Nigeria and returned to the U.S. with Abdulmutallab's family members. In a federal prison outside Detroit, Abdulmutallab's father and uncle persuaded him to cooperate with the FBI, according to a U.S. official briefed on the talks who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing case.
A month before the attack, Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son might be dangerous, a warning that officials failed to connect to other evidence that intelligence officials had gathered. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. had enough information to prevent the attack.
Al-Awlaki, who once preached in mosques in California and northern Virginia and posted fiery English-language Internet sermons urging Muslims to fight in jihad, said in an interview released Thursday that he taught the Christmas bomber and supported his efforts but did not call for the attack.
"Brother mujahed Umar Farouk — may God relieve him — is one of my students, yes," al-Awlaki said in the interview, which Al-Jazeera reported on its Web site Tuesday. "We had kept in contact, but I didn't issue a fatwa to Umar Farouk for this operation," al-Awlaki was quoted as saying.
Understanding Al-Awlaki's connection to Abdulmutallab and to al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula is a key to the U.S. investigation of the attack and its effort to disrupt other plots.
On Nov. 11, British intelligence officials sent the U.S. a cable revealing that a man named Umar Farouk had spoken to al-Awlaki, pledging to support jihad, or holy war. The cable did not contain Abdulmutallab's last name, an omission that made it harder for analysts to connect it to the warning his father would make one week later.
The contents of the cable were described by intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
There were other early warnings, too. A U.S. wiretap referred to a Nigerian being trained for a special mission. And another intercept mentioned "some type of operation on December 25th," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said.
Awlaki's family and many members of his powerful Awalik tribe deny the 38-year-old is a member of al-Qaida. They depict him as a victim of Yemeni and U.S. persecution. The Yemen government, which is increasingly working closely with U.S. intelligence, is negotiating with tribal leaders, trying to persuade them to hand over al-Awlaki, tribal members have said.
While officials are concerned about the eloquent cleric's ability to recruit internationally, U.S. authorities have been especially concerned about his ability to inspire within the United States.
According to a January 2009 intelligence document obtained by The Associated Press, about 11 percent of visitors to al-Awlaki's Web site are in the United States. In December 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted a computer disk full of lectures that his wife sent to an Islamic publishing house in Denver.
Associated Press writers Matt Ford and Pamela Hess in Washington and Ahmed Al-Haj and Sarah El Deeb in San'a, Yemen contributed to this report.
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