SAN'A, Yemen — Officials in Yemen were investigating Tuesday whether the Nigerian suspected in the attempted Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner spent time with al-Qaida militants in the country in the months leading up to the botched bombing.
Administrators, teachers and fellow students at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had enrolled to study Arabic, told The Associated Press that he attended school for only the month of Ramadan, which began in late August. That has raised questions about what he did during the rest of his stay, which continued into December.
Abdulmutallab, 23, told U.S. officials after his arrest he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, a law enforcement official has said.
According to Yemeni officials, Abdulmutallab spent another extended period in Yemen, from 2004-2005.
People at the school who knew Abdulmutallab said he was not openly extremist, though he expressed anger over Israel's actions against Palestinians in Gaza.
The possibility that he was involved with militants in Yemen has heightened concerns about the largely lawless country that has become an al-Qaida stronghold. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group formed in January when operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged, claimed responsibility Monday for the attempted attack on the Detroit-bound airliner.
Information Minister Hassan al-Lozy suggested the U.S. was partly to blame for Yemen's failure to identify Abdulmutallab as a terror suspect. He told a news conference Washington never shared its suspicions about the man, who was flagged on a watchlist as a possible terrorist.
"We didn't get any notice from the Americans to put this man on a list," al-Lozy said. "America should have told Yemen about this man."
Al-Lozy said Abdulmutallab received a Yemeni visa to study Arabic after authorities were reassured that he had "several visas from a number of countries that we are cooperating with in the fight against terror." He noted that Abdulmutallab had a valid visa to the United States, which he had visited in the past.
"Our investigations are looking into who were the people or parties that were in touch with Umar here," al-Lozy told the AP.
He noted Abdulmutallab frequented a mosque in the old city, but did not say whether there was an al-Qaida link to that mosque.
The minister said Yemen was tightening controls on those seeking student visas to come to Yemen in the wake of Abdulmutallab's case.
The new revelations came a day after the al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility for the failed attack, saying it was meant "to avenge the American attacks on al-Qaida in Yemen."
Yemeni forces, with U.S. intelligence help, launched two major strikes against al-Qaida this month, reportedly killing at least 64 militants. But the group's reference to the strikes was apparently propaganda because Abdulmutallab bought his ticket to the U.S. on Dec. 16, a day before the first of the two strikes. The second was on Dec. 24, a day before the airliner bombing attempt.
The strikes appear to be the result of heightened U.S.-Yemeni cooperation to wipe out al-Qaida in Yemen. The group, led by Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, includes several Saudis who have been released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and have attended the kingdom's rehabilitation program designed to reform extremists.
The attempted bombing has raised questions in Congress about President Barack Obama's plans to shut down the Guantanamo facility, nearly half the remaining detainees are from Yemen.
Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi told BBC radio on Tuesday there could be up to 300 al-Qaida militants in his country, some of whom may be planning attacks on Western targets like the one in Detroit.
The Yemeni government's previous attempts against the militants amounted to scattered raids mixed with tolerance of some fighters in return for vague promises they would avoid terror activity domestically.
The Pentagon recently said it has poured nearly $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year – compared to none in 2008.
The U.S. has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces during the past year, and has provided some firepower, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security issues. Some of that assistance may be through the expanded use of unmanned drones, and the U.S. is providing funding to Yemen for helicopters and other equipment.
In its claim, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said it provided Abdulmutallab with a sophisticated explosive that did not go off because of technical malfunction.
On Tuesday, a Saudi official in Riyadh confirmed for the first time that the same type of explosive was used in a failed assassination attempt in August against Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for that attack.
According to U.S. court documents, a preliminary analysis of the device used Christmas Day showed it contained PETN, a high explosive also known as pentaerythritol.
Students and administrators at the San'a institute said Abdulmutallab was gregarious, had many Yemeni friends and was not overtly extremist. They noted, however, he was open about his sympathies toward the Palestinians and his anger over Israel's actions in Gaza. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Yemeni security authorities have ordered them not to talk to the media.
Administrators at the school said Monday that Yemeni security officials have been questioning the director, Muhammad al-Anisi, for two days.
Ahmed Moajjib, the only teacher who agreed to be named, said Abdulmutallab was a "very quiet student, who was extremely smart, liked to help others and was not frivolous."
"He did not appear suicidal, depressed or frustrated," he added.
Internet postings purportedly written by Abdulmutallab suggest a fervently religious and lonely young man who fantasized about becoming a Muslim holy warrior. Throughout more than 300 posts, a user named "Farouk1986" reflects on a growing alienation from his family, his shame over sexual urges and his hopes that a "great jihad" will take place across the world.
While officials haven't verified that the postings were written by Abdulmutallab, details from the posts match his personal history.
On Tuesday, Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters that Abdulmutallab told his parents a few months ago he wanted to study Sharia law, a strict Islamic code, something his father said he couldn't do. Abdulmutallab responded by sending a text message from an unknown cell phone number saying he never would talk to his family again, Akunyili said.
Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen in August, shortly after leaving Dubai, where he took classes at University of Wollongong for about seven months.
Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.