SAN'A, Yemen -- The alleged Christmas Day bomber met al Qaeda agents in Yemen in the fall, and likely met at the time with a radical U.S.-born cleric who has been a subject in this and other terrorism investigations, a high-ranking Yemeni official said.
Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al Alimi, citing Yemeni intelligence reports, said Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left school in San'a, the capital, in late September, and traveled to Shabwa province, an al Qaeda stronghold that is home to Islamist cleric Anwar al Awlaki. "There is no doubt he met with al Qaeda elements in Shabwa, including likely with Awlaki," Mr. Alimi said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based chapter is called, has claimed responsibility for the alleged bomb plot. The Yemeni account also fills out reports by U.S. investigators of contacts between Mr. Abdulmutallab and the cleric.
Mr. Awlaki was the subject of earlier probes. He was the imam at a Virginia mosque attended by Maj. Nidal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting spree in November, and had contact with two of the 9/11 bombers.
Yemeni officials haven't presented any specific evidence linking Mr. Awlaki to the planning and execution of the attempted plane bombing or the Fort Hood shooting. But they say they consider him a significant security risk.
"He's the most dangerous man in Yemen," according to a Yemeni official familiar with counterterrorism operations. "He's intelligent, sophisticated, Internet-savvy and very charismatic. He can sell anything to anyone, and right now he's selling jihad."
The official said Mr. Awlaki had helped recruit al Qaeda foot soldiers among the tribes in Yemen's rural southern provinces.
People close to Mr. Awlaki say he isn't a member of al Qaeda, doesn't condone violence against civilians, and has no connection to the alleged attempt.
Mr. Awlaki's whereabouts aren't known. He was one of the targets in a lethal Yemeni military attack on Dec. 24, along with three al Qaeda leaders, according to Yemeni officials. The cleric's family members told Yemeni media he is still alive.
Governments in countries where Mr. Abdulmutallab has traveled have often sought to disprove any suggestion that he was radicalized on their soil. Mr. Alimi raised questions about a key detail in an international investigation of the suspect's movements. U.S. officials have said the suspect told investigators that he obtained the explosive device in Yemen, as the local al Qaeda affiliate claims. Mr. Alimi said he didn't believe that was the case.
He said Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is Nigerian, picked up the bomb and learned how to use it in Nigeria. He didn't cite specific evidence for that claim. Nigerian officials rejected the assertion, saying the suspect wasn't in the country long enough.
British Prime Minster Gordon Brown said over the weekend the Nigerian had first made contact with al Qaeda in Yemen. Mr. Alimi rejected that statement Thursday, and said he thought Mr. Abdulmutallab must have been radicalized during his time in the U.K.
Write to Margaret Coker at firstname.lastname@example.orgPrinted in The Wall Street Journal, page A6