Al Qaeda Takes Credit for Plot

Dec 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)

Al Qaeda Takes Credit for Plot

By PETER SPIEGEL and JAY SOLOMON in Washington and MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack on Northwest Flight 253, and U.S. officials said the claim appears valid — the clearest indication yet that the attempted takedown wasn’t just the work of a lone radical inspired by Islamist rhetoric, as some investigators initially believed.

The development came as evidence mounted that the U.S. didn’t pursue potential leads that might have brought alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to the attention of authorities, according to Congressional investigators and U.S. officials.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backtracked Monday from comments she made in televised interviews over the weekend, in which she said the U.S.’s security systems had worked. President Barack Obama, in his first public comments about the incident, promised the government would do everything it can to keep travelers secure. “We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable,” Mr. Obama said in remarks broadcast on television from Hawaii, where he is on vacation.

A statement attributed to the group “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” claimed it was retaliating for what it says was the U.S.’s role in a recent Yemeni military offensive on al Qaeda, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute. The statement, accompanied by a photo of the suspect, said the “high-tech device” Mr. Abdulmutallab carried had had a “technical” problem.

“The claim at this point appears valid,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official. However, the depth of the relationship between the terror group and Mr. Abdulmutallab is still unclear.

The explosive used by Mr. Abdulmutallab, a substance known as PETN, is believed to have been used in the attempted assassination in late August of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister and point man on the war on terror. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that attack.

Mr. Abdulmutallab’s method of concealing the device — sewn into his underwear, where security personnel are unlikely to conduct a pat down — is similar to the Saudi attack.

The administration’s initial public response has come under criticism from Republican lawmakers. Ms. Napolitano, who has come under fire for saying the system to detect terror threats worked, on Monday said that her initial comments were taken out of context. On NBC’s “Today” show, she said that “our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that.”

The Yemeni government said Mr. Abdulmutallab had spent the four months preceding the botched plot inside Yemen. He entered the country to study Arabic at a language institute where he had studied before, according to Yemen’s foreign ministry, and his passport had a valid U.S. and other foreign visas.

“There was nothing suspicious about his intentions to visit Yemen, especially considering he had also visited the U.S. in the past,” the foreign ministry said in the statement.

Mr. Abdulmutallab lived in Yemen for two different periods of time, a year from 2004-2005 and from August-December this year, a Yemeni government official said Tuesday.

A senior U.S. military official said of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s ties to Yemen’s al Qaeda affiliate: “I don’t think he was one of their great arrows, but he’s a guy who radicalized pretty quickly, and they accepted him and allowed him to do some things.”

Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen could prove problematic for President Obama, in particular as he hastens to complete the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Roughly half the 215 detainees in Cuba are Yemeni nationals, and the Pentagon has concluded 60 remain national security threats.

U.S. investigators are looking into whether any former Saudi or Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo played a role in the Christmas plot. Six Yemeni nationals were repatriated from Guantanamo last week. A U.S. official working on Middle East policy said Monday that the revelations about al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen “will make it very difficult to return more.”

Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesYemenis last week rally against air raids targeting what their government said was an al-Qaeda training camp.

Yemenis last week rally against air raids targeting what their government said was an al-Qaeda training camp.

Mr. Abdulmutallab’s Yemen connection likely will focus attention on U.S. counterterrorism activities in that country. After receiving no funding for counterterrorism assistance in Yemen in 2008, the Pentagon was given $67 million this year. U.S. officials say the Obama administration is weighing a substantial increase for next year.

U.S. officials have acknowledged providing intelligence assistance for two recent operations, which included air strikes, conducted by the Yemeni government against al Qaeda encampments. Yemeni officials say at least 30 militants were killed and at least two dozen more were arrested during the attacks Dec. 17 and 24.

The al Qaeda statement claimed that the U.S. military directly fired some of the missiles involved in the attacks. Three U.S. officials with knowledge of American operations in the country didn’t deny American military involvement, but wouldn’t comment on the al Qaeda claims.

U.S. officials believe that some of the al Qaeda militants killed by air strikes in Yemen in recent weeks were former Guantanamo Bay inmates.

Although U.S. officials haven’t been vocal about American involvement in the region, the Yemeni government has. In a recent interview, Ali Al-Anisi, a senior security aide to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the director of the president’s office, said the government was determined to rid Yemen of al Qaeda and was cooperating with U.S. officials in that fight. “There is coordination and collaboration in the fight against terror,” he said.

Suspect’s Journey

The Obama administration has seen marked improvement in U.S.-Yemen counterterrorism cooperation over the past two months as signs of al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen have grown. Mr. Saleh’s shift, said a U.S. official working on Middle East policy, was driven in part by pressure from Saudi Arabia following the attempted assassination of Prince Nayef.

U.S. military involvement in Yemen dates back several years to when the Pentagon sent two Special Operations advisers to assess Yemeni needs. Since then, U.S. Special Operations forces have trained both Yemeni special operations teams, run by Mr. Saleh’s son, and its counterterrorism forces.

More recently, the Pentagon has pushed for a more permanent presence in Yemen, but civilian agencies have balked, in part because of worries about whether Mr. Saleh will use his increased capabilities against Islamists or against domestic political enemies.

U.S. counterterrorism officials are concerned that Yemen is emerging as a new safe haven for Arab, African and South Asian militants. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is headed by a Yemeni, Abu Basir al-Wahishi, but many of his top lieutenants are believed to be Saudi. In all, the organization is believed to have between 50 and 100 fighters in Yemen.

The U.S. officials are concerned about the threat posed to Saudi Arabia. The organization has shown a willingness to conduct cross-border raids, and its Saudi members are thought to have access to Saudi funding.

—Summer Said, Siobhan Gorman, Peter Wallsten and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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