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LA Times: Yemeni official minimizes nation’s link to jetliner bombing suspect

January 7, 2010

By Haley Sweetland Edwards and Borzou Daragahi

6:49 AM PST, January 7, 2010

Reporting from Beirut and Sana, Yemen

A senior Yemeni official downplayed his nation’s connection to the Nigerian Islamic militant suspected of trying to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, saying he became an Al Qaeda militant outside of Yemen, even though he met with a radical cleric shortly before undertaking his alleged mission.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab joined Osama bin Laden’s group while he lived in Britain from 2005 to 2008, Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Ali Rashad Alimi told reporters in Sana today.

“The information we have is that Umar Farouk joined Al Qaeda in London,” he said.

At some point, the onetime engineering student and son of a wealthy Nigerian banker set off alarm bells in Britain, which didn’t allow him to reenter the country.

“But Yemen didn’t get that intelligence,” Alimi said.

Alimi’s comments were the most detailed public explanation so far of Abdulmuttalab’s connection to Yemen by any of its officials.

Yemen has come under wide scrutiny since the Christmas Day bombing, which heightened concerns about whether the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation of 23 million was a burgeoning haven for militants. Alimi acknowledged that Abdulmattab met with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar Awlaki during a visit to Yemen last fall at a remote location in Shabwa Province that has since been destroyed.

But Alimi insisted that he didn’t receive the explosives in Yemen. He noted that Abdulmutallab also passed undetected through Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and Holland before boarding the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight he allegedly tried to blow up with explosives attached to his underwear. Passengers helped foiled the plot.

The Los Angeles Times reported today that U.S. border security officials learned of the alleged extremist links of Abdulmutallab as he was airborne from Amsterdam to Detroit and had decided to question him upon his arrival.

Western analysts have accused the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh of ignoring the growing threat of Al Qaeda while concentrating resources on suppressing a Shiite Muslim uprising in the north and a separatist movement in the south. But Alimi insisted that Yemen had placed the Al Qaeda threat as its No. 1 security concern

“The other issues are the second stage of our priorities,” he told reporters.

In recent days, however, the government has tried to paint both the Shiite rebellion in the north and the separatist push in the south, which was once independent of Sana, as linked to Al Qaeda.

Alimi ruled out the possibility of any robust Western military presence in Yemen, which he said could handle all the country’s security challenges. “The operations that have been taken . . . are 100% Yemeni forces,” he said. “The Yemeni security apparatus has taken support, information and technology that are not available here, and that’s mostly from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries.”

He also denied that any unpiloted drones were used to bomb suspected militant sites in Yemen, contradicting U.S. media reports citing unnamed officials in Washington. “There are no drones,” he said. “There are no unpiloted planes in Yemen.”

Abdulmutallab studied Arabic in Sana from 2004 to 2005. Alimi said the government would put in place new measures requiring the many foreign nationals who come to Yemen to study Arabic to register with security forces.

daragahi@latimes.com

Edwards is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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