FBI Sets Up Shop in Yemen

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After years of strained relations with Washington, the government of Yemen has quietly allowed the FBI to open an office in its capital city, San'a, TIME has learned. "Yemen is a hotbed" of Al Qaeda fighters, says a top U.S. counter-terror official. The FBI, along with the CIA and the U.S. military, is urgently trying to disrupt efforts by the jihadists to reconstitute command and control structures in parts of rural Yemen controlled by clans hostile to the government in San'a and sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden, whose own family roots are in Yemen.

FBI agents posted to San'a are forging bonds with Yemeni security officials in the hope of gaining far greater access to telephone records, prisoner interrogations and other intelligence about Yemeni al-Qaeda operatives that have been involved in a series of major terrorist incidents, including the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor; last year's attacks on a French tanker off Yemen's coast and an Israeli tourist hotel in Mombasa, Kenya; and the May 12 bombing of Western residential compounds in Riyadh.

The G-men will also run out leads produced by other FBI agents in Baghdad tracking al-Qaeda fighters who U.S. military leaders say have poured into Iraq to mount guerilla attacks.

Also in their in-box: an assignment from Washington's Joint Terrorism Task Force to track American Muslim cleric Anwar Aulaqi. TIME has been told by a friend of Aulaqi's that the imam abruptly moved to Yemen, his parents' birthplace, last year, as the investigation into his possible relationship with three 9/11 hijackers was heating up. But Aulaqi may be on the move. The FBI is asking British authorities for information on the 32-year-old cleric's doings if he appears in the northern English city of Bradford this month to teach, as advertised on the internet, an "Islamic Study Course" sponsored by the Islamic Society of Britain.

Task force investigators are trying resolve whether, as last month's congressional report on 9/11 suggests, Aulaqi aided hijackers Nawaf Al Hazmi and Khalid Al Midhar when they attended his mosque in San Diego. The report alleges the imam was observed holding "closed-door meetings" with the hijackers. FBI officials discount that allegation, from a single, dubious source. But both FBI and congressional investigators want to know why Al Hazmi and a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour, showed up at a Falls Church, Va., mosque shortly after the imam transferred there in 2001. "In my view, he is more than a coincidental figure," says House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

Aulaqi's religious convictions may or may not have cooled other passions. San Diego County court records show that, several years ago, he was twice charged with soliciting a prostitute, once in August 1996 and again in April 1997, TIME has learned. In the first misdemeanor, he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge on condition of entering an AIDS education program and paying $400 in fines and restitution, documents show. The second time, according to court records, Aulaqi pleaded guilty to soliciting a prostitute and was sentenced to three years' probation, fined $240 and ordered to perform 12 days of community service. Aulaqi — who declined through an intermediary to comment for this story — had another brush with law enforcement when he was interviewed several times by FBI agents investigating 9/11. Says one official: "It was like pullling teeth." But with no evidence of criminal activity, the FBI could not prevent him from leaving the United States.