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Explosive in Detroit terror case could have blown hole in airplane, sources say

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

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"The disappearance and cessation of communication which got his mother and father concerned to report to the security agencies are completely out of character and a very recent development," the statement said.

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Authorities said there was no reason to suspect Abdulmutallab of dangerous activity until his father visited the embassy in Abuja on Nov. 19. The next day, under a program called Visa Viper, mandated by Congress to ensure all terrorism-related information is promptly reported to Washington, the embassy sent a cable saying the father was "concerned that his son was falling under the influence of religious extremists in Yemen," a State Department official said.

The State Department, under existing procedures, passed the Viper information to the National Counterterrorism Center for entry in its terrorism database. Neither the State Department nor the NCTC, officials said Monday, checked to see if Abdulmutallab had ever entered the United States or had a valid entry visa -- information readily available in separate consular and immigration databases. "It's not for us to review that," the State Department official said.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Abdulmutallab has twice obtained U.S. visas, and before this month had visited the United States once in 2004 and once in 2008.

An intelligence official said that because Abdulmutallab had not previously been entered into the system as a terrorism suspect, procedures did not include such checks. Administration officials said these apparent gaps are among those to be studied in the review Obama has ordered.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said there should have been swift action after a prominent Nigerian alleged that his son was becoming radicalized.

"It seems to me that when this happens, the person should go automatically on the no-fly list," she said. "I'd rather, in the interest of protecting people, overreact rather than underreact."

"The Obama administration is flying solo on national security right now," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said he wants to know more about Abdulmutallab's e-mail and other connections to radical clerics to determine whether red flags may have been missed.

"He also had no baggage. They knew he had been to Yemen. Come on, come on, come on. That is pretty suspicious," said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), also a member of the House intelligence panel.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that at the time the latest visa was issued, "there was nothing in his application nor in any database at the time that would indicate that he should not receive a visa. He was a student at a very reputable school. He had plenty of financial resources, so he was not an intending immigrant. There was no derogatory information about him last year."

In its statement, translated by SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda-based analytic service, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula praised Abdulmutallab. It said he had "penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world, with courage and bravery, without fearing death and with seeking the help of Allah."

A senior Yemeni government official insisted that al-Qaeda affiliates in the country are not getting stronger. But the branch's assertion of responsibility, the official said, underscores that fighting terrorism is a global issue and that Yemen needs help in tackling terrorists inside its borders. The statement of responsibility, if deemed credible by U.S. intelligence agencies, may mark the first time al-Qaeda affiliates outside Afghanistan or Pakistan have targeted American soil.

One of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is Said al-Shihri, 36, a Saudi national. He was captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and spent six years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being transferred to Saudi Arabia in November 2007.

In Saudi Arabia, he entered a highly praised rehabilitation program that uses dialogue and art therapy to persuade former militants to renounce extremism. But after graduating, Shihri crossed the border into Yemen and rejoined al-Qaeda.

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen; special correspondents Karla Adam in London and Aminu Abubakar in Nigeria; staff writers Anne E. Kornblut in Hawaii and Karen DeYoung and Carol D. Leonnig in Washington; and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.


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