HONOLULU (AP) - Talking publicly for the first time since a
failed Christmas Day plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner,
President Barack Obama on Monday called it "a serious reminder"
of the need to continually adapt to the terrorist threat.
But even as Obama vowed to use "every element of our national
power" to keep Americans safe, came word that a State Department
warning had failed to trigger an effort to revoke the attacker's
visa. And officials in Yemen confirmed that the would-be bomber had
been living in that country, where terrorist elements quickly
sought to take credit for his actions.
The incident prompted stiffer airport boarding measures and
authorities warned holiday travelers to expect extra delays as they
return home this week and beyond.
Abdulmutallub is being held at the federal prison in Milan,
Mich. A court hearing that had been scheduled for Monday to
determine whether the government can get DNA from him was postponed
until Jan. 8. No reason was given.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, questioned how a man flagged as
a possible terrorist managed to board a commercial flight into the
United States carrying powerful explosives and nearly bring down
the jetliner. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Monday that the
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he
chairs would hold hearings in January.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed
responsibility for the thwarted attack as retaliation for a U.S.
operation against the group in Yemen. Yemeni forces, helped by U.S.
intelligence, carried out two airstrikes against al-Qaida
operatives this month in the lawless country that is fast becoming
a key front in the war on terror. The second one was a day before
23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bring
down a Northwest Airlines flight as it prepared to land in Detroit.
Yemen has long been an al-Qaida stomping ground. But officials
fear that deepening instability in the Middle Eastern nation may be
giving new opportunity for the terror group to establish a base to
train and plan for attacks on the West.
A statement posted on the Internet by al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula said Abdulmutallab coordinated with members of the group
and used explosives manufactured by al-Qaida members.
Solving one mystery of Abdulmutallab's pre-Detroit path, the
Yemeni Foreign Ministry said Monday that he was in Yemen from
August until early December. He had received a visa to study Arabic
in a school in Sana'a. Citing immigration authorities, the
statement said Abdulmutallab had previously studied at the school,
indicating it was not his first trip to Yemen.
Obama, on vacation in his birthplace of Hawaii, acknowledged the
attack showed the need to increase the United States' defenses. He
detailed the pair of reviews that he has ordered to determine
whether changes are needed in either the watchlist system or
airport screening procedures.
"This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face," he
said. "It's absolutely critical that we learn from this
Obama's remarks Monday were the first heard from him on the
Christmas Day scare three days earlier.
Officials said that was deliberate - an effort by the White
House to balance the need for the president to show concern but
also to not unduly elevate a botched incident and thereby encourage
other would-be attackers. This low-key approach is reminiscent of
Obama's strategy this spring of keeping quiet until the American
ship off the coast of Somalia had been freed by the pirates who
Calling Abdulmutallab's action an "attempted act of terrorism"
Obama vowed: "We will continue to do everything that we can to
keep America safe in the new year and beyond."
"The United States will more than simply strengthen our
defenses," the president said. "We will continue to use every
element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat
the violent extremists who threaten us."
Back in Washington, federal officials met to review their
layered system of watchlists and other procedures to examine how to
avoid the type of lapses that led to the attack.
Abdulmutallab's family in Nigeria released a statement that that
his father had reached out to Nigerian security agencies two months
ago. The statement says the father then approached foreign security
agencies for "their assistance to find and return him home."
U.S. officials say that is how Abdulmutallab came to the
attention of American intelligence, just last month, when the
father, prominent Nigerian banker Alhaji Umar Mutallab, reported
his concerns to the American Embassy in Abuja. A senior U.S.
official said the father was worried that his son was in Yemen and
"had fallen under the influence of religious extremists." The
father did not mention any specific threat.
These concerns landed him among the about 550,000 names in the
Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, known as TIDE,
which is maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
Other, smaller lists trigger additional airport screening or other
restrictions, but intelligence officials said there wasn't enough
information to move him into those categories.
Another apparent lapse concerns Abdulmutallab's visa.
Britain had refused to grant him a student visa in May, but
there was no apparent effort to revoke his U.S. tourist visa,
issued in June 2008 and good for multiple entries over two years.
The embassy visit by Abdulmatallab's father triggered a Nov. 20
State Department cable from Lagos to all U.S. diplomatic missions
and department headquarters in Washington. It was also shared with
the interagency National Counter Terrorism Center, said State
Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
The NCTC, which has responsibility if any visas are to be pulled
over terrorism concerns, then reviewed the information and found it
was "insufficient to determine whether his visa should be
revoked," Kelly said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded Monday
that the aviation security system failed, backtracking from a
statement Sunday in which she said it worked.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., joined the GOP critics of that
statement. "They just don't get it," said Hoekstra, the top
Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. "The system didn't
'work' here." Hoekstra, who is running to become his state's
governor, included his criticism in a campaign e-mail that asked
supporters for donations.
The White House said Obama's low-key response was carefully
The plane had been on the ground in Detroit for two hours on
Friday before officials first informed Obama. Advisers said they
wanted to make sure they had complete and accurate information
before going to the president but, even so, Obama's first briefing
with national security and homeland security advisers lasted less
than 15 minutes. Obama's motorcade was rolling toward the gym
Two days later, when another flight from Amsterdam to Detroit
came under suspicion, it was about 90 minutes after it landed
before Obama was informed of what had been a false alarm.
Throughout the weekend, Obama has mixed vacation activities with
crisis monitoring. He played golf on Saturday with friends and was
playing basketball with aides when that second flight landed in
Detroit on Sunday. He went from there to a beach and a gourmet
restaurant dinner in the evening.
On Monday, he did not address the public until after a workout
and a tennis game with his wife - and went golfing immediately
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)