An al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen apparently ordered the Christmas Day plot against a U.S. airliner, training and arming the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused in the failed bombing, President Barack Obama said Saturday.
"This is not the first time this group has targeted us," Obama said, reporting on some of the findings of an administration review into how intelligence agencies failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253.
In his most direct public language to date, Obama described the path through Yemen of Abdulmutallab. He also emphasized that the United States would continue its partnerships with friendly countries — citing Yemen, in particular — to fight terrorists and extremist groups.
Obama's homeland security team has been piecing together just how Abdulmutallab was able to get on the plane. Officials have described flaws in the system and by those executing the strategy and have delivered a preliminary assessment.
A senior administration official had said the United States was increasingly confident there was a link between Abdulmutallab and an al-Qaida affiliate, but Obama's statement was the strongest connection between the two.
"We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaida, and that this group — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America," the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address. It was released by the White House during Obama's vacation in Hawaii.
Officials have said Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in the al-Qaida hotbed of Yemen. Abdulmutallab's threat was only partially digested by the U.S. security apparatus and not linked with a visa history showing the young man could fly to the United States.
Obama has ordered a thorough look at the shortcomings that permitted the plot, which failed not because of U.S. actions but because the would-be attacker was unable to ignite an explosive device. He has summoned homeland security officials to meet with him in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter said the failed Christmas Day atack was the starkest reminder that al-Qaida and other extremists were working to test U.S. defenses.
Leiter said in a statement Saturday that officials "know with absolute certainty" that al-Qaida and others are trying to refine their methods.
The center is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It draws experts from the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and other agencies who try to ensure that clues about potential attacks are not missed.
Intelligence officials prepared for what was shaping up to be uncomfortable hearings before Congress about miscommunication among anti-terror agencies and sweeping changes expected under Obama's watch. The president has been vocal in his criticism of the agencies and against extremists who would harm the United States.
"In recent years, they have bombed Yemeni government facilities and Western hotels, restaurants and embassies, including our embassy in 2008, killing one American," Obama said.
"So, as president, I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government — training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaida terrorists," he said.
The United States provided Yemen with $67 million in training and support under the Pentagon's counterterrorism program last year. Only Pakistan got more, with some $112 million.
Obama said the money had been well spent: "Training camps have been struck, leaders eliminated, plots disrupted. And all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know — you too will be held to account."
The U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told reporters in Baghdad on Friday that U.S. counterterrorism aid to Yemen would more than double in the coming year. Gen. David Petraeus said Yemen was struggling to overcome many challenges, including declining oil revenues and an insurgency making full use of the country's rugged terrain.
"Al-Qaida are always on the lookout for places where they might be able to put down roots," he said.
Security officials in Yemen said Saturday the government has deployed several hundred extra troops to two mountainous eastern provinces that are al-Qaida's main strongholds in the country and where Abdulmutallab may have visited.