Terror suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab appears to have had direct contacts with radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN Thursday.
The official could not say more about the contacts, their frequency or timing.
Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has said he believes there is a connection between AbdulMutallab, who is accused of trying to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day, and the American-born cleric.
Officials are evaluating whether al-Awlaki played a role in the botched attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet en route from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day. The attempt to ignite explosives hidden in AbdulMutallab’s underwear failed to bring down the plane.
Al-Awlaki’s name surfaced in November when U.S. officials revealed he and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5 — had exchanged e-mails. The intercepted e-mails between the two, officials said, had not not set off alarm bells.
The cleric recently told Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language Web site that he had been in touch with Hasan in recent years. In that interview, al-Awlaki said he met Hasan nine years ago while serving as an imam at a mosque in the Washington, D.C., area.
The cleric said Hasan communicated with him via e-mail starting about a year before the shooting rampage — seeking advice about killing U.S. troops, the cleric said.
The cleric said he lauded the Fort Hood attack because it was aimed at troops, whom he accused of fighting an unjust war against Islam.
“It is a military target inside America and there is no dispute over that,” al-Awlaki said. “Also, these military personnel are not ordinary; they were trained and ready to fight and kill oppressed Muslims, and commit crimes in Afghanistan.”
The 9/11 Commission Report says al-Awlaki had contact with two of the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the United States, though there is no evidence he knew of the plot.
Al-Awlaki is believed to have fled to Yemen in 2003 or 2004. Since then, he has been referred to as a “rock star” by some of those who incite radicalism on the Internet.
His current whereabouts are unknown to U.S. officials. Some have speculated that he was killed in a recent strike on suspected jihadist hideouts in Yemen.
But a U.S. official said the intelligence community believes al-Awlaki is alive. His own family was quoted this week as having said the same thing.
Al-Awlaki’s relatives deny he has played any role with al Qaeda. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said he has seen no evidence to the contrary. “There’s no indication that al-Awlaki the cleric is in any way involved in operational matters for al Qaeda, but clearly he has operated as an inciter to jihad in the United States, by his own account,” Bergen said.
But even before his name came up in connection with the Fort Hood shootings, al-Awlaki was a subject of scrutiny by the counterterrorism community as he had moved into what one official described as “more of an operational role” for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.