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Yemen charges al-Awlaki with incitement to kill foreigners

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Yemen terror crackdown
  • NEW: In Shabwa province, oil pipeline is bombed
  • Anwar Al-Awlaki has been charged in absentia with inciting the killing of foreigners in Yemen
  • Al-Awlaki is a key figure in al Qaeda's branch in Yemen

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Yemeni prosecutors Tuesday accused an American-born militant cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, with incitement to kill foreigners, a legal action that reflects the government's newfound resolve to hunt down the notorious al Qaeda figure.

Linked by U.S. authorities to Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal Hasan and the suspect accused in the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, al-Awlaki was charged in absentia at a court hearing in Sanaa.

Two other suspected militants were charged Tuesday: Hisham Mohammed Asim, 19, of Taiz was charged with al Qaeda links and last month killing a French national who worked for an Austrian oil and gas company in Yemen. He denied all the charges.

Also charged in absentia was Othman al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki's cousin, who is also charged with inciting violence against foreigners.

Investigators have not announced a link between Anwar al-Awlaki and the recent U.S. bomb plot tied to militants in Yemen. However, prosecutors said he encouraged Asim to kill foreigners.

The next court hearing will be Saturday, and Judge Muhsan Alwan told the lawyer for the al-Awlakis that he was responsible for bringing them to court.

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  • Al Qaeda

Over the past several months, Yemen, which wants to be seen as a committed partner in the fight against terrorism, has launched several offensives against al Qaeda in its country, but it has not captured Anwar al-Awlaki.

A U.S. official, however, said the federal government was taking a "wait and see" attitude about Yemen's latest announcement. In the past, the official said, many of their attempts to capture Anwar al-Awlaki have fallen short.

But, the official said, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh "does understand the seriousness" of the situation and recognizes the imminent threat to the people of Yemen.

U.S. officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, commonly referred to as AQAP, is behind the recent plot to send bombs from Yemen to the United States. The group is based in Yemen, which has emerged as a major operating base for al Qaeda and other terror groups.

Now, Yemeni authorities are intensifying operations to capture Anwar al-Awlaki, according to a senior Yemeni government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Anwar Al-Awlaki is regarded by the United States as a terrorist and propagandist who has become an important operational figure within AQAP. U.S. officials have confirmed that he is on a CIA and military hit list to be captured or killed.

"He continues to plot attacks against the U.S. and our allies, and he is not bashful about saying that himself," a U.S. official recently said.

Born in the state of New Mexico, Anwar al-Awlaki had been an imam in the United States.

The senior Yemeni official confirmed that security forces and local tribesmen have embarked on counterterrorism operations in Shabwa Province, the homeland of the Awalik -- Anwar al-Awlaki's tribe.

There has been ongoing unrest in Shabwa. An oil pipeline was bombed there Tuesday, according to two officials, one from a local town council and the other from security forces. Security forces have been dispatched to the scene. No one has been taken into custody.

The most recent bomb plot surfaced Friday, when authorities in the United Arab Emirates and Britain found two packages from Yemen with explosives that were addressed to synagogues in Chicago, Illinois.

But two U.S. officials said that the street addresses used on the packagers were not the current locations of the synagogues and that the packages were addressed to historical figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

U.S. investigators believe that bombmaker Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri, 28, is linked to the packages, according to a federal official who was briefed by authorities.

Al-Asiri, who is thought to be in Yemen, is a Saudi who was high on Saudi Arabia's list of most wanted published in February 2009. He is also believed to be the bomber who designed last year's attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on December 25.

Yemeni authorities are also intensifying operations to capture or kill al-Asiri, the senior Yemeni government official said.

The discovery of the packages prompted Yemen to tighten security at all of its airports, the country's National Civil Aviation Security Committee said Monday.

"Every piece of cargo and luggage will go through extensive searching," the agency said.

Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, commander of police in Dubai, United Arab Emirates -- where one of the packages was found -- said the Yemenis should be able to identify the suspects within about 72 hours.

"We gave the Yemenis two tracking numbers, numbers that would be tremendously beneficial to the investigations in identifying the suspects involved," he said.

The parcels left Sanaa and went to Qatar, then to Dubai, he said.

A high-level source in Dubai has previously said the explosive device was contained in a Hewlett-Packard computer printer. Khalfan said no cellular telephone SIM card, a possible way of detonating the device, was connected to the computer printer.

"The parcel was ready for explosion, but until now the detonator is not clear to us," he said. "The question is, was this made to terrorize? The explosive experts are trying to figure out if this new technique is made to spread chaos or to actually cause damage."

Detection of the explosive parcel through airport screening was difficult, he said, in both Dubai and the United Kingdom because the packages had to be dismantled.

The explosive material was enough to have brought down a plane if it had detonated, he said. "We are focusing now on figuring out whether it was ready to explode."

A U.S. official said that the devices were very sophisticated and could have exploded mid-flight, but it wasn't clear whether that was the intent.

An FBI team arrived in Dubai on Monday, Khalfan said, and will exchange information with the United Arab Emirates investigators.

"If this is a work of al Qaeda, they will eventually claim responsibility, just like [Osama] bin Laden did in the past," he said. "Al Qaeda usually threatens, executes and announces." But, he said, there has been no claim of responsibility.

Officials discussed the packages at an international aviation security conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday.

"The events in Yemen have put cargo security at the top of our agenda," said Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association.

"Two things are clear," said John Pistole, who heads the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. "One, we face a determined and creative enemy. Two, the global need for interdependence and collaboration."

Other countries have also put restrictions in place in reaction to the security concern.

In the United Kingdom, all passenger and cargo flights, as well as all flights holding unaccompanied freight from Yemen and Somalia, will be banned for a month.

And Germany banned all incoming flights from Yemen, air traffic control officials said.

The senior Yemeni official said that such decisions mean Yemen is being isolated and that the talk of isolating the country "is a form of collective punishment."

"Nobody benefits from this except al Qaeda. Their recent terror plot was not successful, and yet the decisions by these countries is collective punishment, and the response is really exaggerated.

"Although Germany, Doha, Dubai and England admitted on the record that the packages went through inspections and X-ray machines in those countries and that they didn't detect the explosives, and yet Yemen is being blamed for failing to detect it? If all of those countries couldn't find this, why has there been such a strong response toward Yemen?"

Yemen needs assistance fighting al Qaeda, an aide to the country's prime minister said Monday.

"We need a lot of help as regards security information, logistics," and new ways to confront them, Mohammed Qubaty said, even as he emphasized that Yemen does not want foreign troops on its soil.

Yemen has asked for outside help to thwart terror groups, but the country, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, is still used for operations, U.S. officials say.

The Obama administration is having a series of high-level meetings this week on how to approach the situation in Yemen, senior U.S. officials said.

CNN's Pam Benson, Mohammed Jamjoom and Rima Maktabi contributed to this report.