The suspect in a failed Christmas Day airliner bombing attempt told federal investigators that radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki directed him to carry out the attack, CBS News has learned.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who faces terrorism charges in the Christmas bombing, has been for about a week, providing information about his contacts in Yemen and the al Qaeda affiliate that operates there.
Abdulmutallab has turned against the cleric who claims to be his teacher, al-Awlaki, and has helped the U.S. hunt for him in Yemen, a law enforcement official said Thursday.
Special Report: The Christmas Day Terror Attack
Abdulmutallab's cooperation in discussing al-Awlaki is significant because it could provide fresh clues for authorities trying to capture or kill him in the remote mountains of Yemen. Al-Awlaki has emerged has a prominent al Qaeda recruiter and has been tied to the 9/11 hijackers, Abdulmutallab and the suspect in November's deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood.
Al-Awalki appears to be in a leadership role when it comes to directing terrorist operations and selecting targets for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a law enforcement source told CBS News investigative producer Pat Milton. He had previously been viewed as a behind-the-scenes supporter, providing religious guidance and justification for attacks. He is now said to be an active operations player picking targets and suggesting schemes.
CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan reports that al-Awlaki's U.S. citizenship - he was born in New Mexico - will have little bearing on American military and intelligence efforts to locate and kill him.
U.S. officials, both current and former, tell Logan that if an individual is deemed to be part of a terrorist network that is a threat to American security in any way, they can be targeted legitimately.
"If you can show al-Awlaki is part of the network, and you are targeting the infrastructure of that network, then anyone that is in your way and part of that network can be considered 'collateral damage' and you do not require special permission or legal requirements to go after them," explains Logan.
According to the source, Abdulmutallab told investigators he obtained the powerful explosives PETN and TATP in Yemen and was left on his own to decide when and how to bring down a plane, Milton reports. Abdulmutallab has apparently disclosed to investigators he picked Northwest Flight 253 because of its availability.
The source said Abdulmutallab told investigators he was guided by al-Awalki to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, unlike the failed British bomber plot in 2006 when the bombers were instructed to detonate bombs on airliners over the ocean on the way to the U.S. so that there would be no evidence left behind.
Al-Awlaki himself said in a recent interview that he and Abdulmutallab had kept in contact. A senior U.S. intelligence official said al-Awlaki represented the biggest name on the list of people Abdulmutallab might have information against. Both spoke on condition anonymity to discuss the sensitive ongoing investigation.
Al-Awlaki was born in the United States. Since leaving in 2002, he has mainly lived in , where Abdulmutallab also .
The Yemeni government said Jan. 7 that met in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov.5.
Special Section: Tragedy at Fort Hood
Al-Awlaki denied inciting the army psychiatrist to carry out last November's deadly shootings at Fort Hood, instead pointing the finger of blame at the United States for creating conditions that led to the attack.
Al-Awlaki earned degrees in engineering at Colorado State and in education leadership at San Diego State, according to his Web site. He was an imam at mosques in San Diego and Northern Virginia.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have closely watched him after finding evidence of contacts he had with three of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Abdulmutallab's cooperation with U.S. authorities is at the center of a political dispute in Washington. Democrats say it proves the Obama administration was correct to handle the case as a criminal matter. Republicans accuse the administration of leaking details for political purposes.
The Obama administration has drawn criticism for its handling of the Christmas Day attack. Republicans say it showed terrorist suspects can't be treated like criminals.
in a scathing letter to Republican lawmakers (PDF) Wednesday.
The attorney general wrote that the FBI told its partners in the intelligence community on Christmas Day and again the next day that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would be charged criminally.
Holder said that the possibility of detaining Abdulmutallab in the U.S. military system under the law of war was explicitly discussed in the days following the arrest, including at a Jan. 5 meeting that included President Obama and senior members of the national security team.
"No agency supported the use of law of war detention for Abdulmutallab, and no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued," the attorney general wrote.
He added that the decision to charge Abdulmutallab in federal court is "fully consistent with the long-established and publicly known policies and practices of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the United States Government as a whole, as implemented for many years by Administrations of both Parties."
"Those policies and practices, which were not criticized when employed by previous Administrations, have been and remain extremely effective in protecting national security," Holder wrote.
Abdulmutallab agreed to cooperate after FBI agents flew to Nigeria and returned to the U.S. with Abdulmutallab's family members. In a federal prison outside Detroit, Abdulmutallab's father and uncle persuaded him to cooperate with the FBI, according to a U.S. official briefed on the talks who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing case.
It appears that Abdulmutallab began talking about a week ago after reaching a plea agreement with the government, but that has not been officially confirmed.
A month before the attack, Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son might be dangerous, a warning that officials failed to connect to other evidence that intelligence officials had gathered. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. had enough information to prevent the attack.
Al-Awlaki, who once preached in mosques in California and northern Virginia and posted fiery English-language Internet sermons urging Muslims to fight in jihad, said in an interview released Thursday that he taught the Christmas bomber and supported his efforts but did not call for the attack.
"Brother mujahed Umar Farouk - may God relieve him - is one of my students, yes," al-Awlaki said in the interview, which Al-Jazeera reported on its Web site Tuesday. "We had kept in contact, but I didn't issue a fatwa to Umar Farouk for this operation," al-Awlaki was quoted as saying.
Understanding Al-Awlaki's connection to Abdulmutallab and to al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula is a key to the U.S. investigation of the attack and its effort to disrupt other plots.
On Nov. 11, British intelligence officials sent the U.S. a cable revealing that a man named Umar Farouk had spoken to al-Awlaki, pledging to support jihad, or holy war. The cable did not contain Abdulmutallab's last name, an omission that made it harder for analysts to connect it to the warning his father would make one week later.
The contents of the cable were described by intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
There were other early warnings, too. A U.S. wiretap referred to a Nigerian being trained for a special mission. And another intercept mentioned "some type of operation on December 25th," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said.
Awlaki's family and many members of his powerful Awalik tribe deny the 38-year-old is a member of al Qaeda. They depict him as a victim of Yemeni and U.S. persecution. The Yemen government, which is increasingly working closely with U.S. intelligence, is negotiating with tribal leaders, trying to persuade them to hand over al-Awlaki, tribal members have said.
While officials are concerned about the eloquent cleric's ability to recruit internationally, U.S. authorities have been especially concerned about his ability to inspire within the United States.
According to a January 2009 intelligence document obtained by The Associated Press, about 11 percent of visitors to al-Awlaki's Web site are in the United States. In December 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted a computer disk full of lectures that his wife sent to an Islamic publishing house in Denver.