Investigators have fanned out across the globe to piece together the life of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian student at the center of an alleged al-Qaida plot to blow up an American airliner on Christmas Day.
They know that Abdulmutallab went to an elite British boarding school in the African nation of Togo, studied engineering at the prestigious University College London, and was president of the student Islamic society there. They know he spent some time in Yemen and was enrolled at an Arabic language school in San'a from August until early December of this year.
After that, the details get fuzzier. Abdulmutallab allegedly claims he picked up the explosives used in the attack on the Northwest flight, bound from Amsterdam to Detroit, from an al-Qaida branch in Yemen. Investigators are trying to establish how he contacted them, and they are looking into his connection with a controversial U.S.-born imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who, most recently, was linked to the November attack at Fort Hood, Texas.
Road Map For Jihadists
The FBI has been tracking Awlaki for some time. Born in New Mexico, he was an imam at several different mosques in the U.S. before he moved to Yemen. He emerged as a prominent figure last month when agents discovered that the accused shooter in the Fort Hood attack, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, e-mailed the imam in Yemen 18 times to ask his advice. Not long after that, Hasan allegedly went on the rampage that killed 13 people.
At first blush, listening to Awlaki's sermons on the Internet, one could be forgiven for thinking there must be some mistake. The speeches don't sound all that fiery. He speaks unaccented English and is soft-spoken. In fact, his tone of voice is actually rather sweet. But his demeanor belies a violent message. His most influential lecture is called "Constants on the Path to Jihad," or "44 Ways to Jihad," and it has become a road map for lone wolf jihadists.
"Wherever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word jihad," he says in one of his Internet sermons. "Wherever you see the word terrorism, replace it with the word jihad."
What Awlaki is intonating is that attacks and killings that the rest of the world considers terrorism, he sees as perfectly legitimate.
Typically, in his Internet sermons, Awlaki reads from the Quran in Arabic, and because many of his followers don't speak Arabic, he interprets passages for them. The favored passages tend to be about fighting.
"When the forbidden months are passed, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them," he says in one. "Seize them, beleaguer them and lie and wait for them in every stratagem of war."
Targeting Young Men
Sam Rascoff, formerly in charge of terrorism intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department, says Awlaki "has an unusual ability to interlace an appealing, familiar American preacher style with a fairly vitriolic message.
"And Awlaki is targeting young men searching for guidance."
Young men like bombing suspect Abdulmutallab.
"To listen to Awlaki is to feel like one is in the company of someone who understands you, understands your social predicament and literally and figuratively speaks your language," Rascoff says.
Law enforcement officials won't say definitively and on the record that the two men met, but they will say privately that the two were in contact.
NPR has learned that just before Abdulmutallab cut off all ties to his family in Nigeria, he apparently asked his father if he could go to Yemen to study Shariah (law). His father said no. Officials say Awlaki runs study sessions in Yemen that focus on Shariah. The question is whether Abdulmutallab decided to go to Yemen in August to see Awlaki.
Investigators are looking for clues in Nigeria, London and Yemen. They are also poring through hundreds of Internet postings that they believe were written by Abdulmutallab over the past four years. The postings are from a young man who had the username Farouk1986. That matches Abdulmutallab's middle name and birth year. And investigators say that some of the timing and details in the writings track Abdulmutallab's movements at the time.
The Internet postings begin in 2005 and are clearly written by a lonely young man. One post in 2005 read: "I am in a situation where I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to ... I do not know what to do." That would have been about the time Abdulmutallab was alone at boarding school in Togo. Investigators say Abdulmutallab was young, didn't speak Arabic very well and was looking for religious guidance on the Internet. In other words, he was Awlaki's target audience.
Linked To Other Plots
"His facility with English has given him the kind of link that he's become the favored source" for English-speaking would-be jihadists, says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. Partly because of that, Awlaki's list of followers reads like a who's who in the jihadist world.
He is linked to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers; a group of Canadian Muslims who were charged with plotting attacks on the Parliament building in Ottawa; the six men convicted of planning an attack on Fort Dix, N.J.; and the London subway bombers, just to name a few. Hoffman says it is still unclear whether Awlaki was "doing this on his own or following the direction or guidance of others."
The sense among intelligence officials has been that Awlaki talks a big game and is not as closely affiliated to al-Qaida as he would like his followers to believe. That said, he is thought to be part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the same group that claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day attack.
In Web postings, the group claimed to have trained Abdulmutallab and provided him with the explosives he carried onto the plane. Abdulmutallab allegedly told police that when he was arrested.
Awlaki moved to Yemen in 2002, and from his post there, he has sent out laudatory messages on his Facebook and YouTube sites after attacks. He called the alleged Fort Hood shooter a "hero." After the Somali Islamist militia group al-Shabab launched suicide attacks against the United Nations in Somalia, Awlaki also put out a congratulatory e-mail to the group.
Now investigators are trying to determine just how closely Awlaki is tied to this latest incident. They are trying to figure out if Abdulmutallab went to Yemen specifically to visit the cleric — and whether Awlaki played any role in introducing him to the people who may have provided the explosives for Northwest Flight 253.