WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American diplomats last year proposed that 23 people in Australia be subjected to U.S. air travel curbs due to suspected contacts with Islamic militants in Yemen, a leaked State Department cable says.
Six of the Australian citizens and residents named in the Jan. 21, 2010 cable are women. The document says that one of the reasons security authorities believe the women should be subjected to U.S. air travel restrictions is because al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate has been scouting for female recruits.
A U.S. intelligence official said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other militant groups for some time have sought to recruit female operatives. The official said U.S. authorities are concerned that militants would like to deploy female suicide bombers.
The cable reports that each one of the people nominated for possible U.S. air transport restrictions has a possible connection to al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate or to Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born Islamic militant preacher who is involved with the group.
Awlaki has been a major concern for U.S. and other Western intelligence services since he was linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born militant who attempted on Christmas Day 2009 to attack an American-bound airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants.
Evidence also surfaced of alleged contacts between Awlaki and Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in an armed rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies believe Awlaki, whose messages have been transmitted widely over the Internet, is an inspiration for English-speaking militants around the world, and that he also may have played an operational role in the failed Christmas 2009 underpants attack. The U.S. embassy cable from Canberra was sent to Washington only weeks after both the Fort Hood and Christmas Day incidents.
The State Department cable, classified “Secret,” says the U.S. Embassy in Canberra is recommending that 11 people named in it should be placed on a “no-fly list” maintained by U.S. aviation security authorities, which means they would be banned from boarding any U.S.-bound aircraft.
The cable says that the other 12 people named in it should be placed on a “selectee” list, meaning that they would be subjected to extra scrutiny — possibly including questioning and physical searches — if they attempt to board a plane headed for U.S. airspace.
The cable explicitly alleges that all 23 people named in it have some sort of “association” or “demonstrated connection” with either Awlaki or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. However, it does not provide further detail about such alleged associations or connections.
The cable, originally leaked to the WikiLeaks website, was made available to Reuters by a third party.
According to the cable, the U.S. embassy in Canberra nominated the 23 names to authorities who make the watchlist in Washington based on information supplied by the Australian government. A U.S. official said that just because an Embassy or foreign government recommends that a person’s name be added to aviation security watchlists does not guarantee that the name will be added to the list.
U.S. national security, diplomatic and intelligence officials declined all comment on the leaked cable or its contents, and U.S. intelligence sources said they could not discuss, which, if any, of the people named in the cable might now be subjected to U.S. air travel curbs.
Following representations from both the U.S. and Australian governments, Reuters decided not to publish any of the names of individuals listed in the cable because to do so could undermine airport safety precautions and intelligence activities.
The cable demonstrates how the influence of Awlaki — who was acquainted with one or more of the hijackers who attacked U.S. targets on Sept. 11, 2001 — has spread, largely via the Internet, to far-flung corners of the English-speaking world.
It also demonstrates the extent to which Awlaki and his possible admirers have become subjects of concern to intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies throughout the English-speaking world.
In the wake of the failed Christmas 2009 airplane bombing, U.S. officials acknowledged that intelligence agencies had collected data indicating that “tens of thousands” of different email account holders had been in contact with Awlaki.
This deluge of internet traffic — involving emailers whose true identity often is not apparent — is one measure of the volume of raw intelligence U.S. and friendly spy agencies have had to sort through as they have scrambled to assess the extent of Awlaki’s influence around the world.
Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons