As Stephen F. Hayes has thoroughly documented, there is much U.S. officials should be asking Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab about. Abdulmutallab was mirandized shortly after his arrest, however, and decided to stop talking. He has provided, at most, limited cooperation since then, prompting administration officials to claim that the FBI got everything that was needed in just 50 minutes. That is implausible for a variety of reasons. But here is one more topic for the interrogation that should have been: What does Abdulmutallab know about the Americans (including ex-convicts) al Qaeda has recruited?
In a report released late last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee informed the American people (emphasis added):
Law enforcement and intelligence officials told the Committee staff in interviews in December in Yemen and other countries in the region that as many as 36 American ex-convicts arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic. The officials said there are legitimate reasons for Americans and others to study and live in Yemen, but they said some of the Americans had disappeared and are suspected of having gone to Al Qaeda training camps in ungoverned portions of the impoverished country. Similar concerns were expressed abouta smaller group of Americans who moved to Yemen, adopted a radical form of Islam, and married local women. So far, the officials said they have no evidence that any of these Americans have undergone training. But they said they are on heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports and the related challenges involved in detecting and stopping homegrown operatives.
The committee thus raised concerns about two groups of Americans who traveled to Yemen: (1) The "36 American ex-convicts," some of whom "are suspected of having gone to Al Qaeda training camps," and (2) another group of Americans who they are keeping an eye on, but apparently haven't been trained yet.
Here's the problem. Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen to study Arabic (even though he was already fluent) in the summer of 2009. He used this trip (his second to Yemen) as a pretext for going to al Qaeda training camps where he learned how to (almost) blow up a plane. That some of the 36 American ex-cons mentioned above have followed a similar pattern -- traveling to Yemen to study Arabic and then migrating to al Qaeda camps -- is disturbing. It is also the type of thing interrogators would want to ask Abdulmutallab about.
As a Nigerian who adopted elements of Western culture in the UK, there are good reasons to suspect that Abdulmutallab would have come into contact with other al Qaeda recruits who share a similar background -- including Americans. Al Qaeda typically pools recruits by nationality, ethnicity, or culture in its safe houses and camps. This makes it easier for new recruits to assimilate into the terror network.
So, what does Abdulmutallab know about the Americans al Qaeda has recruited for training in Yemen? We may never know. Or, if we do know something about Abdulmutallab's fellow recruits from Abdulmutallab himself, we may never know more. After all, interrogators need more than 50 minutes to establish a baseline of reporting to use in their questioning. This is one topic interrogators should want to continue working on -- if only they could.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.