Officials: Cleric Had Role In Christmas Bomb Attempt NPR News Investigation: Intelligence officials suspect that American-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki may have lured Umar Farouk 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. A look at the cleric and his reach.

Officials: Cleric Had Role In Christmas Bomb Attempt

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week we have been airing an NPR News investigation called Going Radical about suspected Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. One of the key characters in this young man's story is an American-born imam. His name is Anwar al-Awlaki. He's admitted to knowing Abdulmutallab. But their relationship, according to intelligence officials, goes far deeper than that. In fact, NPR has learned that al-Awlaki may have been in charge of a small terrorist cell and that Abdulmutallab may have been his first al-Qaida recruit.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.

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DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Vendors are piecing together metal frames so they can hang tarps against the rain on Whitechapel Road. This is the Finsbury Park district of London, a place where people are more likely to speak Dari and Urdu than English. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Whitechapel Road is not in the Finsbury Park district. Finsbury Park is in North London. Whitechapel Road is in East London.]

Unidentified Crowd: (Foreign language spoken)

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TEMPLE-RASTON: One man is selling music CDs from a box, another a selection of head scarves. This neighborhood feels more South Asian than British. Most of the women are covered, wearing a head scarf or a shapeless abaya over their clothes. It's here that Abdulmutallab apparently attended a sermon at the Finsbury Park Mosque, according to U.S. intelligence officials. It was either in the fall of 2006 or 2007. He went to listen to the man who would become his mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Mr. ANWAR AL-AWLAKI (Imam): Allah says fight those who believe not in Allah, nor the last day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's one of al-Awlaki's sermons. It can be found on the Internet. His name may sound familiar. That's because he is the same radical imam who was implicated in the Fort Hood shootings last year. He was in email contact with the suspected shooter, Major Nidal Hasan. And, apparently, he blessed that attack and then called Hasan a hero.

Muslim scholars will tell you that they don't understand why al-Awlaki is so popular, aside from the fact that he speaks English and can reach an audience that doesn't speak Arabic. He's had no formal Islamic training or study but he has thousands of followers on Facebook.

Mr. DOUGLAS MURRAY (Executive Director, The Center for Social Cohesion): They will routinely describe al-Awlaki as, you know, a vital and highly respected scholar who is actually simply a sort of, you know, an al-Qaida affiliate nut case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Douglas Murray heads The Center for Social Cohesion, a think tank that studies radicalization in Britain. He thinks Abdulmutallab may have been seduced by all this hype.

Mr. MURRAY: It's very easy to see how someone like Abdulmutallab would have thought that al-Awlaki was what his supporters claim he is. And from that you can see how he would've wanted to have had something to do with him. He wouldn't have had to have gone out of his way to make this contact.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Finsbury mosque is not the only place in the U.K. that has ties to al-Awlaki. He's 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.

The U.S. has been trying to bring him in for questioning for years. After the Fort Hood attack, it 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 get a hold of him.

Shiraz Maher is a former Islamist who now tracks radicalization in Britain. He says people all over the U.K. have al-Awlaki's contact numbers.

Mr. SHIRAZ MAHER (Former Islamist): It's incredibly easy. In fact, British universities are even now still promoting Anwar al-Awlaki.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Really. In what way?

Mr. MAHER: I mean, right up until Abdulmutallab, most university Web sites, in London particularly, had links to al-Awlaki's Web site and work. And I believe just in September - October time, there were attempts to again get him to do video broadcasting to the U.K. at British universities. So, it shows how sort of significant he remains.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that significance is growing. Intelligence officials don't know precisely how Abdulmutallab ended up in Yemen but they think it was at al-Awlaki's invitation. And that would mark a real change in al-Awlaki's role with al-Qaida. Al-Awlaki has always been a propagandist. If he actually mentored Abdulmutallab while he allegedly trained to bomb a U.S. airliner, that would mean al-Awlaki had moved into an operational role in the organization.

What's more, officials tell NPR that they believe al-Awlaki was put in charge of more people than just Abdulmutallab. They believe he trained an entire cell of English-speaking recruits. Apparently, Abdulmutallab named names and provided locations to authorities. Law enforcement officials are looking for those young men now. Officials say they don't believe the young men are in the U.S.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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