The most grievous security breach to threaten the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, constituted a "systemic failure" of the country's counter-terror protocols, President Barack Obama said Tuesday as evidence mounted regarding just how much warning U.S. authorities had about an attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
Officials confirmed Tuesday that the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that a branch of al-Qaeda was discussing the preparation of "a Nigerian" to execute a terror attack, and that the CIA met with the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to detonate plastic explosives on the Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
The failed attack, the result of what Mr. Obama called a "potential catastrophic breach of security," is forcing intelligence agencies in the United States and around the world to rethink the way they secure the skies and putting the Arabian peninsula, where the accused man apparently studied, in the international counter-terror spotlight.
Late Tuesday CNN quoted unnamed government sources as saying that the United States is discussing possible "retaliatory strikes" against al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliates in the wake of the attempted bombing.
Mr. Obama's statement came as authorities in several countries worked to retrace Mr. Abdulmutallab's steps. The young man's growing radicalism had already estranged him from his wealthy and prominent Nigerian family when he boarded a plane in Lagos bound for Amsterdam with a connecting flight to Detroit. He had just left Yemen, a country he visited multiple times on a student visa and where it's alleged he obtained training and supplies to carry out the attempted attack.
In his second appearance before the television cameras in as many days, Mr. Obama was harshly critical of U.S. intelligence and security protocol leading up to the foiled bombing. Authorities had enough information to prevent Mr. Abdulmutallab from boarding the plane but didn't, he said.
"A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable," the President told reporters at the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps base in Hawaii, where what was supposed to have been a 10-day vacation has been interrupted by the terrorist threat.
U.S. officials confirmed that CIA agents met with the Mr. Abdulmutallab's father, a retired Nigerian banker, in the U.S. embassy in Abuja on Nov. 19 to discuss his concerns over his son's radicalization.
"It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Mr. Obama said. Even without this tip, which Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this week wasn't sufficient to warrant Mr. Abdulmutallab's placement on a no-fly list, "there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together," Mr. Obama said.
"We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks. But it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have," the President said.
In a statement released earlier this week, Mr. Abdulmutallab's family said he had been estranged from them for several months. Yemeni authorities confirmed Tuesday that he had been in the country until recently on a student visa - the second one it had issued to him - ostensibly to study at an Arabic language school. Yemen announced Tuesday that it is tightening restrictions on who it gives visas to.
Investigators are turning increasing scrutiny to the region where Mr. Abdulmutallab apparently became radicalized, and where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula this week claimed responsibility for the foiled bombing. Terrorism is becoming an increasing problem for the fractured state, Yemen's Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said Tuesday, adding that U.S. aid - both humanitarian and military - has proven "inadequate" in the country's attempt to tame growing extremist elements. Yemen needs resources for counter-terror training and equipment, Mr. al-Qirbi said, estimating that there are 300 al-Qaeda militants in the country.
Yemen hasn't been a priority for a U.S. administration fighting two foreign wars as it wrestles with its share of domestic turmoil, said Christopher Boucek, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But with its military preoccupied with a civil war in the country's north, Yemen is becoming increasingly attractive for militants fleeing crackdowns in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere.
"As the state's power recedes more and more into these urban areas where they do have control, you have more areas of undergoverned space. And it's in those gaps where it's feared that al-Qaeda affiliated or aligned organizations will seek out the ability to plot and plan and train. And this is what they have been doing," Dr. Boucek said. "The Americans, I'm sure, are going to do more stuff there. They probably already are."
With a report from The Associated Press