Obama ties airliner plot to al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate

By Anne E. Kornblut and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

KAILUA, HAWAII -- President Obama said for the first time Saturday that the alleged Christmas Day airline bomber apparently was acting under orders from the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, which "trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America."

The statement, in Obama's weekly address, reflected initial reviews of U.S. intelligence that he ordered after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, was charged with trying to ignite an explosive device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

White House officials traveling with Obama, as well as intelligence officials in Washington, have said privately for days that they suspected an al-Qaeda link to the foiled attack. But Obama's statement -- by far the most public and definitive -- appeared to be an attempt to stay ahead of events.

Obama also called for an end to the partisan attacks that quickly followed the Detroit incident. Responding to GOP accusations led by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who said last week that the president does not consider the fight against terrorism a war, Obama quoted his inaugural address. "On that day," he said, "I made it very clear our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them. . . . And make no mistake, that's exactly what we've been doing."

He said he had "made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government -- training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaeda terrorists."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, delivered a letter from Obama to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a meeting Saturday in Sanaa, the capital. According to Saba, the Yemeni news agency, Saleh "confirmed our country's keenness to enhance its relations and cooperation with the U.S. to serve the joint interests of the two countries." Petraeus said Friday that the United States will double the $70 million in counterterrorism aid it gave to Yemen in 2009.

Obama, who arrived in Hawaii on Christmas Eve, spent Saturday with his family, visiting a water park and going to the beach at a nearby Marine base. He is expected to return to Washington on Monday, and plans to meet with senior intelligence and homeland security officials on Tuesday.

Four days after the bombing attempt, Obama emerged from his vacation seclusion to cite what he called "human and systemic failures" in U.S. intelligence leading up to the incident. He also called for a review of all intelligence systems and databases. John O. Brennan, a former senior CIA official who is Obama's counterterrorism chief, is directing the effort. The normally reclusive Brennan is scheduled to appear on several Sunday TV talk shows.

Initial results of the review have shown that electronic intercepts from Yemen as early as August -- when Abdulmutallab arrived in that country -- mentioned an unnamed Nigerian being groomed for an al-Qaeda attack. In an Internet posting in late October, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, urged attacks on "airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways."

On Nov. 19, Abdulmutallab's father visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to express concern about his son, who he said had expressed increasingly radical ideas before disappearing while in Yemen. All these pieces of information -- including Abdulmutallab's possession of a valid U.S. visa -- were contained in intelligence databases, but officials did not connect the dots.

U.S. support for Yemen has increased sharply in recent months. The United States supplied intelligence and other assistance for Yemeni airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Dec. 17 and 24 that reportedly hit insurgents' residences and training camps. Wuhayshi was killed in the Dec. 24 attack, although early reports that a Yemeni American cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was also among the dead apparently were erroneous. The Yemeni government has said Aulaqi is still alive, and a U.S. intelligence official said that is also the "working assumption" of the United States.

Last Sunday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in a statement that the attempted airline bombing was in response to "the monstrous raids using cluster bombs and cruise missiles that were launched from the American warships occupying the Gulf of Aden," offshore from Yemen, ". . . and they killed tens of Muslim women and children and . . . entire families."

U.S. officials have concluded that the plane plot was shaping up months before the December airstrikes.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

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