US Plots Retaliatory Strikes Against al-Qaida in Yemen over Plane Bomber

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by
The Guardian/UK

US Plots Retaliatory Strikes Against al-Qaida in Yemen over Plane Bomber

by
Chris McGreal in Washington, Nasser Arrabyee in Sana'a, and Hugh Macleod

Members of the Yemeni counter-terrorism force. Yemen has seen, and will continute to see, increased US aid in support. American officials say intelligence efforts are focused on identifying and tracking down those who plotted to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the plane with enough explosive in his underwear to bring down the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam. (AFP/Getty)

The US is planning retaliatory strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida over its attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.

American
officials say intelligence efforts are focused on identifying and
tracking down those who plotted to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the
plane with enough explosive in his underwear to bring down the
Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam. But they warn that finding
those responsible is unlikely to be swift and say that identifying
other "high-value" al-Qaida targets for retaliatory attack would also
be a priority.

"First we have to find out who put Abdulmutallab
on the plane with the bomb," said a US official working alongside
intelligence organisations. "He's providing some leads and we're not
dealing with an unknown quantity here. We've been watching and
listening to what goes on in Yemen and we may have pieces of the puzzle
already and just need to fit it together.

"If and when we
identify them then we plan how to deal with them. Who they are is one
thing, where they are is another.If they're still in Yemen and we can
get a lock on them then it won't be too difficult to know what to do.
But they know who they are and won't be standing out. After that we can
move with the president's authorisation. I don't think there's much
doubt that authorisation will be forthcoming, but no one should think
all of this is going to happen overnight."

The official
acknowledged that there was likely to be political and public pressure
on Barack Obama to strike back at al-Qaida, particularly with
Republican opponents breaking with the usual solidarity on national
security issues to accuse him of weakness and making America vulnerable
to attack.

"The people we want are the ones who put Abdulmutallab
on the plane. Until we can get them there are other high-value targets
that will make the point that attacking America does not go
unpunished," said the official.

But given the regular attacks
against al-Qaida in Yemen, these may have a greater impact on American
public opinion than on the extremist group.

The US has been
conducting a covert assault with drone attacks on al-Qaida bases for
about a year, while CIA agents inside the country help direct ground
operations. American special forces have been training the Yemeni
military and may have been involved in raids.

General David
Petraeus, the American regional commander, and John Brennan, the
president's counterterrorism adviser, both visited Yemen this year.

Joe
Lieberman, chairman of the Senate's homeland security committee, who
visited Yemen in August, described the country this week as a focus of
the assault on al-Qaida. "Yemen now becomes one of the centres of that
fight. We have a growing presence there - and we have to - of special
operations, Green Berets, intelligence," he said.

Yesterday,
Yemeni forces targeted Nasser Ahmed al-Ahdal, a former prisoner
released after renouncing violence but believed to have renewed links
to al-Qaida. One man was injured and captured but Ahdal and two others
escaped.

Several al-Qaida members killed in raids by Yemeni
forces in the past fortnight had been released or had escaped from
prison. Others who have left jail to rejoin the fight include Nasser
al-Wahayshi, the Yemeni leader of al-Qaida, who escaped along with 22
others from prison in Yemen in 2006. His deputy, Saeed al-Shihri,
joined al-Qaida in Yemen last year after being released to Saudi Arabia
from Guantánamo.

While intelligence officials plan how to
hit back abroad, they are under pressure at home after Obama blamed
intelligence failings for Abdulmutallab being allowed to board a plane
to the US.

The president has ordered that a preliminary report be
delivered to him explaining how the young Nigerian
managed to smuggle the explosives on to the flight.

The criticism
is focused on the CIA and the national counterterrorism centre (NCC)
established after 9/11. The CIA is under scrutiny because it picked up
intelligence from Yemen that a Nigerian was involved in a forthcoming
attack at about the same time that Abdulmutallab's father told US
diplomats in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, that his son had become
radicalised in Yemen and was a possible threat. That information was
shared with CIA officials in Abuja who passed it on to the NCC, but it
was apparently not matched with the intelligence from Yemen. On Tuesday
Obama condemned the failure to share information and other intelligence
failings as "totally unacceptable".

CIA in the line of fire

First
the finger was pointed at Janet Napolitano, the homeland security
secretary, who blundered after the failure of Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallab's bombing attempt by saying "the system worked".

But
with Barack Obama condemning intelligence failures as "totally
unacceptable", attention is focused on the CIA and the national
counterterrorism centre (NCC), set up after 9/11 to pool information
and forestall the kind of plot that Abdulmutallab came close to
completing.

The CIA is under pressure after it was revealed that
it apparently had two important pieces of the puzzle that might have
prevented the attack and did not put them together.

The New York
Times said the agency picked up intelligence from Yemen that a Nigerian
was at the forefront of a looming attack on American interests. At
about the same time, the CIA was part of a briefing at the US embassy
in Nigeria after Abdulmutallab's father warned American diplomats that
his son was becoming radicalised, and was in Yemen. The CIA drew up a
file, but then sat on it for five weeks.

For its part, the NCC
was told by the state department about the warnings by Abdulmutallab's
father, but then did not check whether the young Nigerian had a US
visa. He did.

The president described the handling of the warning as a failure.

Richard
Clarke, a former chief counter‑terrorism adviser on the US national
security council, said that while Napolitano is feeling the heat for a
political misstep,it was the CIA and NCC that should shoulder
responsibility. "There does appear to be a failure here either at the
CIA or the new national counterterrorism centre. Homeland security
didn't get the information. I think the problem lies at the
intelligence community and not at homeland security," he said.

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