The Obama administration says that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (UFA), the failed Christmas Day bomber, is now cooperating with investigators after weeks of silence. Assuming that’s true, then authorities should be able to get answers to the following questions:
--Press reports indicate that UFA met with Anwar al Awlaki, a notorious al Qaeda cleric, while in Yemen. Awlaki was a “spiritual adviser” to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, had ties to other 9/11 hijackers, and also advised Major Nidal Malik Hasan prior to the Fort Hood Shootings. What is the relationship between UFA and Awlaki? How did UFA get in touch with Awlaki in the first place? Al Qaeda maintains strict security protocols and not just anyone can meet with an influential ideologue like Awlaki. Someone within the terror network probably vouched for UFA prior to his meeting with Awlaki. If so, then who vouched for UFA?
--Press reports also indicate that UFA consorted with various extremists and terrorists while living in the UK. These individuals may have been instrumental in UFA’s radicalization. Which of these individuals did UFA consider to be the most “helpful” in his terrorist career? Did any of these suspects put him in contact with Awlaki or other al Qaeda operatives living in Yemen? Did any of these contacts help radicalize UFA?
--One of UFA’s suspicious contacts in the UK is a former Guantanamo detainee named Moazzam Begg. Begg was one of the star presenters at a “War on Terror Week” conference UFA organized while president of the Islamic Society at the University College of London. The conference was really an anti-American hate fest. How does UFA characterize his relationship with Begg and Begg’s organization, Cage Prisoners? Begg is a longtime supporter of Anwar al Awlaki. Did Begg assist UFA in contacting Awlaki? (For more on Begg and his relationship with UFA and Awlaki, see here, here, here and here.)
--UFA traveled to Yemen in the summer of 2009, ostensibly to study Arabic, but he was already fluent in Arabic. His studies were really part of his cover story, as he quickly made his way to al Qaeda’s training camps. How did UFA come up with this idea to use his Arabic studies as a cover? Did any of his fellow extremists/terrorists in the UK or elsewhere suggest it? If so, which one(s)?
--UFA is not the only extremist who has used Arabic studies in Yemen as a cover story. According to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, authorities have found that 36 American ex-convicts have traveled to Yemen to study Arabic and some of them made their way to al Qaeda’s camps. Did UFA meet with any of these Americans during his time in Yemen? If so, what does he remember about them? Did UFA meet with any other Westerners during his time in Yemen? Again, if so, what does he remember about them? What types of operations were they preparing to execute, if any?
--Former Guantanamo detainees hold key positions within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This includes Said al Shihri, the #2 deputy of AQAP, and Ibrahim Rubaish, AQAP’s chief ideologue. Did UFA meet with al Shihri or Rubaish? If so, what did they discuss? Did either of these former Gitmo detainees play a direct role in the Christmas Day bomb plot?
--From UFA’s perspective, who originally came up with the concept (i.e. using explosives sewn into his underwear) for the bomb plot? Who trained him? Did UFA’s al Qaeda trainers pitch any other ideas for operations?
--Yemen’s intelligence services have been deeply compromised by jihadists, including al Qaeda members. President Saleh’s Political Security Organization (PSO), in particular, has many members whose loyalties are really with the terror network. Did UFA receive any assistance during his travels from members of the PSO or any other branch of the Yemeni government?
--Finally, despite its recently renewed interest in fighting al Qaeda, the Yemeni government has allowed senior members and associates of al Qaeda to operate openly. One of these senior figures is Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, who has been a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden and yet the duplicitous Yemeni government has refused to shut him down. In fact, Zindani held a conference in the heart of Sanaa weeks after the Christmas Day attack to denounce U.S. intervention in the country and to pledge jihad if America should increase its presence. Did UFA meet with Zindani or any of Zindani’s aides while in Yemen? Is UFA familiar with Zindani’s teachings? If so, did Zindani’s teachings have any effect on him?
These questions are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. But they are good place to start, assuming that UFA is now answering questions.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.