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Attempt to bomb airliner could have been prevented, Obama says
Addressing Republican demands that he revisit his plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama also said he has suspended the repatriation of least 30 Yemenis already cleared for release by a Justice Department-led interagency review. Nearly half of about 200 detainees remaining at the prison are from Yemen.
But he said he will continue with already delayed plans to close the facility, which he said "has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda."
"In fact," he added, "that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
The Yemen-based group, known as AQAP, was founded in part by prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay during George W. Bush's administration. Yemen's weak government, poverty and inhospitable terrain have provided fertile ground for the growth of the organization, which Yemeni military forces targeted last month in two U.S.-assisted airstrikes.
The administration has cited extensive intelligence indicating that AQAP is still planning an attack on the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Yemen was closed Sunday for security reasons but was reopened Tuesday, officials said, along with those of Britain and France. Yemeni security officials said thousands of their forces had hemmed in al-Qaeda militants in three provinces and staged a raid outside the capital in which two al-Qaeda fighters were killed, Reuters reported from Sanaa, the capital.
A statement by the U.S. Embassy there said that the operations "addressed a specific area of concern and have contributed to the embassy's decision to resume operations."
Abdulmutallab, 23, is due in federal court in Michigan for a bail hearing Friday, and authorities have expressed hope that he will agree to a plea deal in exchange for a reduced prison term. His public defender, Miriam L. Siefer, did not return calls or e-mail messages seeking comment Tuesday.
Federal sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with the case, said Abdulmutallab provided useful information to the FBI in interviews on Dec. 25, the day of his arrest, explaining his travels in Yemen and connections to the al-Qaeda group there. Investigators are pursuing leads overseas in response to that information, sources said, and the United States and Yemen were considering responses, including additional military attacks targeting AQAP's operational leaders and radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who survived a bombing attack last month.
FBI investigators are hoping to compare the remnants of a similar explosive device used in an August attempt to kill a senior Saudi government official to determine whether it employed the same technology and possibly was constructed by the same bombmaker.
Intelligence officials have said that Abdulmutallab first came to U.S. attention as a possible terrorism suspect in November, when his father approached the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to say that his son was in Yemen, had cut off contact with his family and was in bad company. A cable sent to Washington by diplomatic and CIA officials at the embassy said they had been given information that the "subject may be involved with Yemeni-based extremists."
Under its existing guidelines, the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean did not consider the information alarming enough to forward Abdulmutallab's name to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which manages terrorism watch lists throughout the government. Because no check was done, it was not known that he possessed a valid U.S. multiple-entry visa.
Other information in intelligence databases that could have flagged the report for more scrutiny included National Security Agency intercepts -- beginning in August, when Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen -- that mentioned "Umar Farouk" and "the Nigerian," as well as an anti-U.S. attack being planned for the holidays. There were also reports indicating that the Nigerian had been in direct contact with Aulaqi.
Staff writers Peter Finn, Carrie Johnson, Ellen Nakashima and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.