Radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, suspected of ties to al-Qaida, has said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was his student, but that he didn't tell him to carry out the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, Al-Jazeera television reported on its Web site on Feb. 2.
An American-born imam has emerged as a key figure in the story of the Christmas Day bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Muslim cleric's name is Anwar al-Awlaki.
He has admitted to knowing Abdulmutallab, but the relationship is much deeper, intelligence officials say. They suspect he may have directed Abdulmutallab to Yemen for training by al-Qaida operatives before the young Nigerian tried to bring down a Detroit-bound trans-Atlantic airliner on Dec. 25.
In the 1990s, London's Finsbury Park neighborhood had the nickname "Londonistan." The name is thought to have originated with French security officials. They claimed that the British government was turning a blind eye to Islamic extremists who were settling in the neighborhood and other parts of London in exchange for tacit agreement that they would not attack Britain.
After a series of bombings in Paris in 1995, French police raided the homes of suspected terrorists in France. They found phone numbers and addresses that led to the Finsbury Park Mosque.
Intelligence officials say the mosque figures in the Abdulmutallab case, too. In tracing the path of Abdulmutallab, intelligence officials say he apparently attended a sermon at the Finsbury Park Mosque in the fall of 2006 or 2007. He went to listen to the man who would become his mentor and perhaps his al-Qaida recruiter: Awlaki.
The cleric is the same radical imam who was implicated in the Fort Hood shootings last year. He was in e-mail contact with the suspected shooter in that case, Maj. Nidal Hasan. In e-mail messages to Hasan, he apparently blessed the attack, and afterward he called Hasan a hero.
Muslim scholars say that they don't understand why Awlaki is so popular. Aside from the fact that he speaks English and can reach an audience that doesn't speak Arabic, he has no formal Islamic training or study. But he has thousands of followers on Facebook and his sermons are popular on the Internet.
'An Al-Qaida-Affiliate Nut Case'
"They will routinely describe Awlaki as a vital and highly respected scholar, who is actually an al-Qaida-affiliate nut case," says Douglas Murray, executive director of The Center for Social Cohesion, a think tank that studies radicalization in Britain.
Murray says Abdulmutallab may have been seduced by all the hype. "It is very easy to see how someone like Abdulmutallab would have thought that Awlaki was what his supporters claim he is. And from that you could see why he wanted something to do with him. He wouldn't have had to go out of his way to get this contact," he says.
The Finsbury Park Mosque is not the only place in Britain that has ties to Awlaki.
He is often a guest speaker at Muslim organizations in Britain. Typically, he speaks by video link. He isn't allowed to travel to the U.K. because of his radical views.
U.S. officials have been trying to bring him in for questioning for years. After the Fort Hood shooting rampage in November, the U.S. even launched a missile strike on one of his houses in Yemen. But he survived the attack.
Despite all this, until recently his followers could still reach him.
Shiraz Maher, a former Islamist who now tracks radicalization in Britain, says people all over the U.K. have Awlaki's contact numbers. "It's incredibly easy to get a hold of him," Maher says. "In fact British universities are even now still promoting Anwar Awlaki."
"Until the Abdulmutallab plot, most university Web sites in London had links to Awlaki's Web site and work and examples of his work. And I believe just in September-October time, there were attempts to get him to do video broadcasting at universities in the U.K. So it shows how significant he remains," Maher says.
Awlaki's Growing Significance
Intelligence officials don't know precisely how Abdulmutallab ended up in Yemen, but they think it was at Awlaki's invitation.
If true, it would represent a significant change in Awlaki's role with al-Qaida. Awlaki has always been a propagandist. If he actually mentored Abdulmutallab while the young man allegedly trained in Yemen to bomb a U.S. airliner it would mean Awlaki had moved into an operational role in al-Qaida's affiliate there.
Officials tell NPR that they believe Awlaki was put in charge of more people than just Abdulmutallab. They believe he trained and mentored an entire cell of English-speaking recruits.
In U.S. custody in a federal prison in Michigan and talking to investigators, Abdulmutallab apparently named names and provided locations to authorities. Law enforcement officials are looking for those young men now. Officials say they do not believe the young men are in the United States. British officials declined to comment on whether the young men they are looking for are in the United Kingdom.