DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen said on Sunday it is trying to detain a Muslim cleric wanted dead or alive by Washington, but has yet to receive intelligence from the United States on the U.S.-born militant’s activities.
U.S. officials said on Tuesday that the administration of President Barack Obama had authorized operations to capture or kill U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki — a leading figure linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional wing which claimed responsibility for a failed bombing of a U.S.-bound plane in December.
“He (Awlaki) is wanted by Yemeni justice for questioning, so that he can clear his name … or face trial,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Al Jazeera television.
Qirbi did not give details of any manhunt by Yemeni security forces to arrest Awalaki, but referred to an air raid on a suspected al Qaeda gathering last December which the cleric reportedly had attended.
Qirbi said Yemen had not received U.S. intelligence on Awlaki’s contacts with a Nigerian suspect in the attempted bombing of the transatlantic passenger plane and with a U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of shooting dead 13 people at a military base in Texas in November.
“The detailed information … and evidence gathered by U.S. agencies has not been given to Yemen,” Qirbi said.
Qirbi had been quoted by media reports as saying that Yemen saw Awlaki as a preacher and not a terrorist, but he told Al Jazeera that those remarks referred to the period just after Awlaki’s return to Yemen when he was not suspected of wrongdoing by the United States.
Born in New Mexico, Awlaki led prayers at U.S. mosques. He returned to Yemen in 2004 where he taught at a university before he was arrested and imprisoned in 2006 for suspected links to al Qaeda and involvement in attacks. Awlaki was released in December 2007 after he was said to have repented.
Awlaki’s tribe has denounced U.S. plans to target him, vowing it “will not stand by idly and watch.”
Heavily armed tribes in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, often try to protect their kin by seeking to gain their release or favorable treatment. At times, they have kidnapped foreign tourists to pressure the government.
Western countries fear that al Qaeda’s resurgent regional wing is exploiting instability in Yemen to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Yemen has carried out air strikes with U.S. assistance to target al Qaeda leaders, but there have been conflicting reports about whether Awlaki was present during any of those attacks.
U.S. officials believe he remains in hiding in Yemen.