U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki had met the man accused of the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing and was linked to the Fort Hood shooter.

An influential Yemeni cleric, once thought un-apprehendable by the authorities despite his preaching in support of al-Qaeda, including to several of the 9/11 hijackers, on January 7 appeared to be a target for arrest after a senior Minister suggested the U.S.-born cleric had met the man accused of the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing.

Rashad al-Alimi, Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister for Defence and Security, told journalists in Sana’a that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to detonate explosives aboard an airliner over Detroit, had gone to Anwar al-Awlaki’s home during a trip to Yemen late last year.

Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen in late August on a student visa and was last seen on September 21, according to friends and teachers. He reappeared on December 5, friends said, and left Yemen two days later, the authorities confirmed.

The date of Abdulmutallab’s departure calls into question the claim by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), the group U.S. President Barack Obama blames for the airliner incident, that the attack was in direct response to U.S. military support for Yemen’s all-out offensive against the militants, which began on December 17.

The Deputy Mnister confirmed that during his 11-week disappearance Abdulmutallab met al-Qaeda leaders at a farmhouse in Rafad, in Yemen’s remote eastern province of Shabwa. The farmhouse was bombed on December 24, a day before the attempted Detroit attack, in air strikes that Yemeni security sources initially said killed Awlaki.

However, a journalist and family friend of Awlaki told the Guardian last week that he had spoken to the cleric, who lives near the farmhouse and he was “alive and well”. Several of Awlaki’s relatives who had attended the meeting were killed in the attack, but AQAP’s senior leadership escaped, said local sources, having left the farm just hours before.

Awlaki’s contacts with Nidal Hassan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 American soldiers at Fort Hood in November, have raised further serious doubts over the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence gathering. Last month it emerged that Hassan’s first email to Awlaki asked whether the cleric could justify, under Islamic law, the killing of American soldiers on U.S. soil. The email was sent on December 17, 2008 and was intercepted by the FBI, who failed to stop Hassan before the killings 11 months later.

The confirmation of Awlaki’s contacts with Abdulmutallab will put Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh under serious pressure as his American allies demand to know why the cleric was allowed to continue to operate for months, even after the revelation of his contacts with the Fort Hood killer.

Authorities said in November they sought the arrest of Awlaki, but local journalists said the cleric continued to live at home untroubled. The authorities’ reluctance to move against radical Islamists in Yemen underscores the deep conflicts over political Islam which lie at the heart of Yemen’s ruling elite. While the government runs a programme to re-educate Islamist militants away from violence, it lost the support of U.S. officials after graduates of the scheme were captured in Iraq fighting U.S.-led forces.

The re-education programme, involving talks between jailed militants and a senior Yemeni cleric, aims to persuade jihadists that Islam does not condone the kind of violent terrorism practised by groups such as al-Qaida.

“Yemen has created a new way to fight terrorism. We proved to the world that the tongue and pen are more powerful than weapons,” Judge Hamoud Hitar, the Islamic scholar who leads the programme, told the Guardian.

The programme also aims to integrate former militants into society, providing them with training, jobs and a home.

Mr. Hitar said that up until 2006, of the 420 prisoners holding extremist militant Islamic views whom he talked to, none had committed armed violence against the state. But the judge said he was unable to argue against militants fighting in Muslim countries under occupation. Mr. Hitar said: “As long as the U.S. Army and British army are conquering them, Muslims have the right to fight and defend their lands and themselves. The jihad is a part of our religion.”

Mr. Obama said this week he would suspend repatriation of any Yemeni prisoners held at Guantanamo bay, which he has pledged to close. Nearly half the remaining 198 inmates are from Yemen. Mr. Alimi denied accusations that another prominent Yemeni cleric and leader of the Islamist opposition, Abdul Majeed Zindani, had played a role in radicalising Abdulmutallab.

A London Sunday Times report said the Nigerian had attended lectures by Awlaki at Zindani’s Iman University. Mr. Alimi said Abdulmutallab had not done a formal course at Iman. When asked why the authorities had not arrested Zindani, labelled by the U.S. a “specially designated global terrorist” for ties to Osama Bin Laden, the Minister said there was no legal basis for doing so. — © 2010 The New York Times News Service

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