By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudan
SANAA (Reuters) – A Nigerian man accused of the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day was recruited by al Qaeda in London and met a radical American Muslim cleric in Yemen, a top Yemeni official said on Thursday.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind the failed bombing.
“The information provided to us is that Umar Farouk (Abdulmutallab) joined al Qaeda in London,” Rshad al-Alimi, Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security, told a news conference.
Abdulmutallab, son of a prominent Nigerian banker, is believed to have embraced extreme religious views during trips to Yemen to study Arabic and Islam. He also studied engineering at University College London between 2005 and 2008.
Alimi said that Abdulmutallab had met Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki during his time in Yemen — a U.S.-born cleric linked to the gunman who ran amok at the Fort Hood U.S. army base in Texas in November.
A Yemeni security official said last month that Awlaki may have been killed in a strike on al Qaeda militants, but other reports say he escaped and is on the run.
Yemen, located on the Arabian Peninsula’s strategically important southern tip, is trying to fight a threat from resurgent al Qaeda fighters as well as quash a Shi’ite revolt in the north and separatist sentiment in the south.
The authorities launched an operation this week to root out al Qaeda militants who they said were behind threats that forced Western embassies to close on Sunday.
The raid, which killed two militants, allayed U.S. concerns and allowed the heavily fortified U.S. embassy to reopen.
Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told CNN that fighting al Qaeda was “the priority and the responsibility of our security forces and the army.”
Asked whether it would accept direct U.S. intervention, he said: “No, I don’t think we will accept that. I think the U.S., as well, has learned from Afghanistan and Iraq and other places that direct intervention can be self-defeating.”
The foiled Christmas Day bombing has turned a spotlight on the growing prominence of al Qaeda in Yemen and the expanding role of the U.S. military and spy agencies in fighting it.
Yemen has long been a base for al Qaeda. Islamic militants bombed the warship USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Yemenis were one of the largest groups to train in al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The Yemeni government has this week sent troops to join a drive against al Qaeda in three provinces. One security source said there were extra checkpoints on main roads.
Yemeni forces also surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday, and have captured eight rank-and-file militants in recent days, security sources said.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will exploit Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and beyond.
“Our thought was that maybe we should spare al Qaeda in the last year because of the confrontation in the south and with the Houthis (rebels). But al Qaeda took advantage of that,” Qirbi said, adding that it had tried to make inroads among the northern rebels and southern separatists.
“Then they went even further, to arrange for some (suicide) attacks in Sanaa. And this is why it was important that our security forces should take action against them,” he said.
Yemen, with shrinking oil reserves, a water crisis and a fast-growing population, has stepped up security on its coast to block militants from reaching its shores from Somalia. Qirbi said there were about 200 to 300 al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
“How many of them are going to entertain terrorist attacks is something that is obviously of concern to us. This is why we always stress the importance of cooperation with the United States and other countries in the region,” he said.
Yemeni officials acknowledge the need for U.S. help with counter-terrorism, but say the government also lacks resources to tackle the poverty that widens al Qaeda’s recruiting pool.
Awlaki was banned this year from speaking via videolink to a fundraising event in London for Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay amid claims, which he has disputed, that he backed attacks on British troops and supported groups linked to al Qaeda.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)