By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was briefed in October on an assassination attempt by Al Qaeda that investigators now believe used the same underwear bombing technique as the Nigerian suspect who tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, U.S. intelligence and administration officials tell NEWSWEEK.
The briefing to Brennan was delivered at the White House by Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s chief counterterrorism official. In late August, Nayef had survived an assassination attempt by an operative dispatched by the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda who was pretending to turn himself in. The operative had tried to kill the Saudi prince by detonating a bomb on his body, but stumbled on his way into the prince's palace and blew himself up.
Saudi officials initially thought the bomb had been secreted in the operative's anal cavity. But after investigating the matter more thoroughly, they concluded it had likely been sewn into his underwear, thereby allowing the operative to bypass security checks before his meeting with the prince. A main purpose of Nayef's briefing for Brennan was to alert U.S. officials to the use of the underwear technique.
U.S. officials now suspect that Nayef's attempted assassin and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect aboard the Northwest flight, had the same bomb maker in Yemen, intelligence experts tell NEWSWEEK. At the briefing for Brennan, Nayef was concerned because “he didn’t think [U.S. officials] were paying enough attention” to the growing threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen, said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the briefing. (A senior Saudi official told NEWSWEEK Saturday that “we don't have any concerns that the U.S. government isn't sufficiently concerned about Yemen. In the latter part of the Bush administration and in this administration, the U.S. has been very focused on the dangers emanating from Yemen.”)
The briefing for Brennan could raise questions on Capitol Hill about how widely information was shared within the government about the apparently new technique used by Al Qaeda. A senior administration official said, however, that within a week after the assassination attempt on Nayef, President Obama had dispatched Brennan to Saudi Arabia to discuss the attack. “The October visit by Prince Nayef to Washington was part of this ongoing cooperation, which included developing the forensics out of the attack,” the official said. “That forensics information was widely shared within the U.S. government, as is all information about the evolving threats and tactics employed by our enemies.”
In the months before the Christmas attack, the article reports, there were many warning signs coming out of Yemen. In early October, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric based in Yemen, posted a provocative message on his English-language Web site: “Could Yemen be the next surprise of the season?” Al-Awlaki hinted at an upcoming attack that would make Yemen “the single most important front of jihad in the world.”
Al-Awlaki, who had had contacts with two of the 9/11 hijackers, is the same imam who had been exchanging e-mails with the U.S. Army psychiatrist who later killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. He is a now central figure in the Detroit investigation: prior to the Christmas incident, the National Security Agency had intercepted communications between a phone used by al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells NEWSWEEK. The official says that al-Awlaki may also have been involved in other intercepted communications indicating that Al Qaeda was planning to use an unidentified “Nigerian” in an attack over the holiday season. As NEWSWEEK reported on Friday, U.S. intelligence officials at a White House Situation Room briefing on Dec. 22 presented President Obama with a document on pre-holiday terror threats called “Key Homeland Threats.” But a senior administration official said there was no mention of Yemen in the written briefing document. The official would not say whether Yemen was discussed at the briefing.
Former U.S law-enforcement and intelligence officials are scathing about the U.S. government’s handling of pre-Christmas intelligence about Abdulmutallab and the prospect of a possible attack from Yemen. “The system should have been lighting up like a Christmas tree,” said Ali Soufan, a former senior FBI counterterrorism agent who spent years tracking Qaeda suspects in Yemen (and often battled with the CIA over information sharing).
When Abdulmutallab’s father visited the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, in November to report his concerns that his son might have been involved with Islamic extremists in Yemen, the FBI had no representative at the meeting; the FBI maintains an attaché only in Lagos on the southern coast, not in Abuja, the capital. But the CIA, which did have an officer present who wrote up a report on the meeting, never told the FBI about Abdulmutallab.
Much of the blame for the breakdown is being aimed at the National Counterterrorism Center, a unit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created as part of a host of 9/11 reforms aimed at promoting better information sharing within the U.S. intelligence community. Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s chief homeland-security adviser, says that analysts at the NCTC should have been pushing, or pinging, the system for more information on Abdulmutallab. “It was NCTC’s responsibility to connect the dots, and ask for additional dots if they don’t have enough,” she said. Instead, the original report about the visit of Abdulmutallab’s father appears to have been dropped in a “dead-letter file.”
(NCTC Director Michael Leiter issued the following statement on Saturday, interests. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.")
White House officials say President Obama has been keenly focused on the Qaeda threat from Yemen for months. As the NEWSWEEK story reports, the president has authorized a covert war in the country: when Yemeni jets bombed Qaeda targets on Dec. 17 and 24 (including a strike that tried, but failed, to kill al-Awlaki), the United States supplied intelligence, missiles, and military support. American spies and special forces are on the ground, assisting the Yemenis.