WASHINGTON -- Alleged links between a Northwest Airlines terrorism suspect and militants in Yemen are raising new concerns inside the Obama administration that the Middle East country is emerging as a key new safe haven for al Qaeda.
The suspect, Nigerian-national Abdul Mudallad, said he received instructions and training from al Qaeda operatives based in Yemen ahead of boarding the Detroit-bound flight Friday, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials.
These officials said they couldn't confirm Mr. Mudallad's claims. But the purported bombing attempt came as Yemen's security forces intensified military operations against al Qaeda forces, with significant U.S. intelligence support.
Among the targets of Yemen's military campaign, according to Yemeni and U.S. officials, is Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic preacher linked to the shooter in last month's attack on the Ft. Hood military compound in Texas.
U.S. law-enforcement officials Friday said they were investigating if Mr. Mudallad may have been seeking to strike American targets in retaliation for Washington's role in Yemen's crackdown. Yemen's government claims it has killed nearly a hundred militants in operations over the past two weeks, particularly in the country's remote Shabwa region.
U.S. counterterrorism officials view Yemen, along with Pakistan and Somalia, as among the most dangerous safe havens for al Qaeda and other militant groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and faces dwindling oil supplies and severe water shortages. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, meanwhile, is fighting well-armed insurgencies in both Yemen's south and north, providing potential sanctuaries for militants seeking to target the West and U.S. allies.
Last month, Saudi Arabia invaded northern Yemen to try and contain Shiite fighters, who are known as the Houthi rebels. Yemen's southern tribes, meanwhile, are seen as closely tied to al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups. Osama bin Laden's family originally came from Yemen.
The Pentagon provided nearly $70 million in counter-terrorism aid this year, along with substantial intelligence support and training programs. U.S. officials, however, have voiced frustration over what they say has been Mr. Saleh's failure to adequately focus on al Qaeda. Many believe he could have used dialogue, rather than arms, to address the Houthi threat.
U.S. officials, however, have said they've been pleased by Yemen's latest military campaign. "They finally seem to be stepping up to the plate," said a U.S. official working on Yemen.
Yemen's instability is one of the primary reasons President Barack Obama will be unable to meet his January target date for shutting the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
Nearly half of the 210 detainees at Guantanamo are Yemeni nationals. And the Pentagon has concluded that roughly 60 of these men continue to pose a security threat to the U.S.