SANA'A // Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day, was recruited in London and obtained his explosives in Nigeria, a senior Yemeni official said yesterday. "The Nigerian lived in Yemen from 2004 to 2005 and he was not with any radical inclination during this period. But, he might have been radicalised when he lived in London after that," Rashad al Alimi, the deputy prime minister for security and military affairs, told reporters in Sana'a. After "he left Yemen [in the first week of December 2009], he got his explosives in Nigeria and not Yemen".
Mr Abdulmutallab visited Yemen last year to study Arabic at the Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language where he stayed between August 4 and September 21; he left the school to go to the airport on that date with an exit visa but never took his flight, seemingly disappearing for a number of weeks until he finally flew out of the country on December 7. Mr al Alimi said Mr Abdulmutallab met during this time al Qa'eda operatives in Shabwa, possibly including Anwar al Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, who was linked to an attack by a US army major on the Fort Hood base in Texas in November, in which 13 people died.
"According to the available information, he was in contact with the terrorist groups in Shabwa , particularly those who were targeted" in Yemeni government offensives on December 25. "Abdulmutallab might have had contact with al Awlaki or [Mohammed Saleh] Omair," said Mr al Alimi, referring latterly to a militant believed killed in Shabwa. He added that the area targeted in Shabwa province, about 650km east of Sana'a, is where Yemen believes Mr Abdulmutallab met with al Qa'eda militants.
Mr Abdulmutallab was indicted by a US grand jury on six counts on Wednesday, including attempted murder of the 290 people aboard the plane and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Mr al Alimi said security had arrested a number of al Qa'eda suspects recently but refused to give further details. He said the results of the investigations of those arrested would be revealed once completed.
He said Mohammed al Haniq, a suspected al Qa'eda leader in Arhab district, 60km north-east of Sana'a, had not been arrested as some media reported on Wednesday. Government forces killed two of Mr al Haniq's escorts and wounded three others on Monday. Yemen, which is facing an insurgency from al Houthi rebels in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south, said on December 17 it had launched military raids against al Qa'eda training camps in the Abyan village of al Maajala, 480km south-east of Sana'a, and in Arhab.
Government officials said as many as 34 suspected militants, including four would-be suicide bombers hiding in Arhab were killed and 29 others were arrested. Local sources said the raid in Abyan killed more than 60 civilians, mainly women and children, which sparked angry protests in the south. The government said on December 25 its forces killed more than 30 suspected militants in a dawn raid in a remote mountainous region of Shabwa province. However, local sources said the strike killed only five.
Mr al Alimi refuted allegations these attacks were carried out by US forces and warned that any direct involvement of the US in Yemen would only boost al Qa'eda. "The operations are taken by Yemeni decisions and are absolutely carried out by Yemeni troops." Mr al Alimi said Yemeni forces had received information, technology and training from abroad and was exchanging intelligence with the US and Saudi Arabia, but he insisted that all military operations in Yemen - "past, present and future - are carried out by Yemeni forces alone.
The deputy minister said it was difficult to know how many al Qa'eda militants are in Yemen, but he said there were hundreds in jail while dozens were standing trial. In addition to the military option, Mr al Alimi said another strategy in combatting terrorism was conducting dialogue with extremists who had not yet committed terrorist acts. He said dialogue programmes involving clerics, psychologists and social workers had managed to rehabilitate 600 people so far who were once al Qa'eda members.
Mr al Alimi said al Qa'eda, which has carried out 61 terrorist operations in Yemen since the 1990s, in addition to 15 thwarted attempts, is a major challenge and top priority for the government, as well as the Houthi Shiite insurgency in the north and the growing separatist movement in the south.