Yemen official minimizes nation’s link to jetliner bombing suspect

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

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab joined Osama bin Laden’s group while living in Britain from 2005 to ’08, Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad Alimi told reporters Thursday in Sana, the capital. “The information we have is that Umar Farouk joined Al Qaeda in London,” he said.

At some point, the onetime engineering student and the 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 by government officials of Abdulmutallab’s connection to Yemen.

Yemen has come under scrutiny since the thwarted bombing, which has heightened concern about whether the impoverished Arabian peninsula nation of 23 million is a burgeoning haven for militants. Alimi acknowledged that Abdulmutallab met with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki last fall at a remote meeting place in Shabwa province that has since been destroyed.

But Alimi said Abdulmutallab didn’t receive the explosives in Yemen. He noted that the man also passed undetected through Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and the Netherlands before boarding the flight from Amsterdam that he allegedly tried to blow up with explosives hidden in his underwear. Passengers helped foil the attempt.

Abdulmutallab studied Arabic in Sana from 2004 to ’05. 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.

The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday 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 Yemeni 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 said Yemen had made the Al Qaeda threat its No. 1 security concern.

“The other issues are the second stage of our priorities,” he told a few hundred reporters assembled at a government news conference.

Across town, the parliamentary opposition coalition held a less well attended news conference, where leaders primarily addressing local political issues also accused Saleh of using the issue of Al Qaeda as a political tool.

“Al Qaeda has been a problem in Yemen for a long time. The issue is not new. Now the government is just taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tool for getting attention,” Naif Gunas, a spokesman for the opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Party, said in an interview after the news conference.

“International support and attention on this issue gives [the ruling party] all the power,” he said.

Yasin Said Numan, who leads the Yemeni Socialist Party, said he was concerned that Saleh does not have an adequate strategy for combating Al Qaeda militants, citing Saleh’s inability to defeat the Shiite rebellion the government has been battling sporadically since 2004.

The government recently has tried to paint the northern insurgency and the separatist push in the south, which was once independent of Sana, as linked to Al Qaeda.

Numan also worried that U.S. support in Yemen might grow, as it has in Pakistan. “The radical element in Yemen doesn’t need any outside hand to develop and increase it. We hope America doesn’t make the same mistake again,” he said.

Alimi addressed similar fears. He ruled out the possibility of any robust Western military presence in Yemen, which he said could handle its own 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 drones were used to bomb suspected militant sites in Yemen, contradicting U.S. news reports citing unnamed officials in Washington. “There are no drones,” he said. “There are no unpiloted planes in Yemen.”

Alimi said Yemen is “a democratic state, able to face all the challenges it faces today with the support of all [Yemenis], and with regional and international support.”

“In one year, two years, three years, you will come back to Yemen and find a solid place,” he said.

Opposition party leaders were less optimistic.

“We are not a democracy,” Gunas said. “And Yemen has many, many challenges . . . that won’t go away just fighting Al Qaeda.”

Edwards is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.