A Tardy Wake-up Call for Spreading al Qaeda Menace
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
December 29, 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his mother
The failure of Lagos and Amsterdam airport security to detect the explosives the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried aboard two flights on Christmas Day was only a small side-effect of America's flawed intelligence policies and performance with regard to al Qaeda.
DEBKAfile's counter-terror sources note that in the past year, Washington was strangely deaf to a flood of notices from Saudi, Egyptian and Yemeni security agencies warning that al Qaeda networks had established themselves in Yemen and so gained a jumping-off base into the Arabian peninsula and across the strategic Gulf of Aden. The network was now directly linked from Yemeni shores to Osama bin Laden at his new headquarters in Pakistani Baluchistan.
These warnings went unheeded by the relevant agencies in Washington.
Only two months ago, on Oct. 7, President Barack Obama told the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia: "We're making real progress in our core mission - to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world."
Citing a counterterrorism expert, Obama added: ?Because of our efforts, Al Qaeda and its allies have not only lost operational capacity, they?ve lost legitimacy and credibility.?
Only three days before the US president's speech, on Oct. 3, the FBI arrested the Chicagoan David Headley at O'Hare Airport and charged him with targeting and conducting reconnaissance for the al Qaeda branch Lashkar e-Taibe's terror massacre in Mumbai of November 2008, which left more than 170 people dead.
A month later, US Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan shot dead 13 comrades at the Fort Hood base in Texas. Federal investigators persist in refusing to call the crime an act of terror although Hasan was shown to have been in regular correspondence with Anwar al-Awkali, the imam who was religious mentor to 9/11 hijackers and himself, from the time he relocated to Yemen in 2008.
The failed Christmas Day airliner bombing has strong leads to Yemen indicating that the attempt was plotted, planned and aided from that country.
A statement posted Monday, Dec. 28 on an Islamist website in the name of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempt, named Abdulmutallab "our brother" and hailed him for his "heroic action."
The Yemeni government then disclosed that the young Nigerian had lived in Yemen from August to December on a visa to study Arabic. It is obvious now that what he really studied was the mechanics of an explosive device for crashing an airliner.
Yemen has been on US radar for some time, certainly since al Qaeda blew up the American destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 American seamen. Both the CIA and the FBI have maintained a covert presence in this Red Sea country in the past year at least, along with American civilian counter terror experts and small special units. Their mission is to help President Abdullah Salah's regime to survive in the face of two insurgencies, one fostered from Iran, and make sure that the burgeoning al Qaeda network is unable to repeat its USS Cole feat of destruction.
All of this, taken with the two warnings the Abdulmutallab family passed to the US embassy in Lagos about their fanatical kinsman, points to the serious malfunctioning of America's intelligence and anti-terror machinery.
The undercover US elements in Yemen were clearly not briefed about any imminent perils and therefore could not advise their masters in Washington that the future bomber was in Yemen or should be watched if he left. No one was still "connecting the dots" eight years after 9/11.
DEBKAfile's counter-terror experts are clear that the weakness is conceptual rather than technical or human. Because of this, President Obama interrupted his Hawaii vacation for a hard-hitting speech to the American nation. This time he vowed "to defeat" al Qaeda, a term he is normally loath to utter. And the US Homeland Secret Janet Napolitano was forced to correct her original expressions of satisfaction with US aviation security measures.
At the same time, the Obama administration is still playing it cool, refraining from elevating the orange alert level current in US airports for the past two years. And although security measures are to be reviewed and enhanced, nothing has been said about overhauling the agencies which fell down on the tasks they are taxed with to prevent and combat terror - or correct their fundamental approach to those tasks.
Americans should therefore not be surprised each time al Qaeda opens a new front against the West. Now it is Yemen which is finding itself dragged into the same boat as Afghanistan and Pakistan.