Eight days before the Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam intending to blow it up in the approach to Detroit, US fighter planes and helicopters using precision-guided weapons struck three al-Qaeda hideouts in the Yemeni province of Abyan, killing 34 terrorists, some of them very high-profile.
But their main target, Qassim al-Raymi, al Qaeda's military commander in Yemen, escaped.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and counter-terrorism sources report that for the past month and a half, US drones and fighter-bombers have been pressed into action against al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Yemen, simply because the Yemeni air force lacks the aircraft and munitions for the job.
For all sorts of reasons, Yemen has been taking credit for those air raids.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in previous issues that the Americans were airlifting to Yemen supplies of ammunition and spare parts purchased in Bulgaria and Romania for its outdated Soviet-supplied weapons systems. In addition, Sanaa, the capital, and the southern port of Aden are teeming with CIA field operatives and civilians specializing in counterterrorism.
Therefore, the United States was already immersed in a third, largely covert front, against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, roughly two months before Abdulmutallab's sloppy attempt to blow up the Amsterdam-Detroit airliner on Christmas Day.
Yemen in no position to refuse US ground troop aid
US statements this week about a search for fresh Yemen-based al Qaeda targets for retaliation are at odds with this chronology. American military and intelligence planners know exactly where the axe should fall. It is left to President Barack Obama to decide only what weapons to use, cruise missiles – unreliable for precise targeting in a difficult terrain dominated by high mountains and deep narrow gorges – or more fighter jet and helicopter attacks.
The most effective tactic would be to drop US special forces from the air on al Qaeda redoubts and tackle them in ground combat. The necessary Yemeni government permission is not likely to be withheld considering president Abdullah Salah's desperate straits (see separate article in this issue on the Saudi troop withdrawal).
But first, President Barack Obama would have to wrestle with the thorny dilemma of whether his administration really wants to open a third world front in the war against terrorism.
His decision would be contingent on proof that the failed Nigerian bomber's scheme originated in Yemen. There is only his statement that he acquired the explosives and mission instructions in that country to go on so far. It is still unsupported.
His presence in Yemen from August until December was confirmed by the Sanaa government, but there is no certainty that he actually flew from Yemen to Lagos on Dec. 23 or 24 to make the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in time. While his fanatical proclivities are confirmed, there is no evidence that the Yemen-based al Qaeda network boasts explosives experts skilled enough to determine that the 80 grams of PETN taped to his underwear, slightly more than Richard Reid carried in his shoe in 2001, was the correct amount for blowing a hole in the wall of the Northwestern Airline jet.
Who was Abdulmutallab's European airport companion?
The intelligence theory at this early stage, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter terror sources, is that the explosive charge was prepared somewhere else and Abdulmutallab stopped over at that location en route from Yemen to Lagos to pick it up and receive last instructions on its use.
This theory was strengthened by the Dutch security service's preliminary inquiry into the lapse which permitted him to pass through Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam without the explosives on his body being detected.
Several eye-witnesses, among them security and airport personnel, reported that the Nigerian was not alone when he arrived at the airport. An unidentified man was said to have accompanied him up to the gate. Unlike the bomber who was poorly dressed, this man was smartly attired in an expensive suit. There was no trace of Yemeni blood in his appearance. In fact he looked and sounded like a typical European in every sense.
The witnesses said that while the Nigerian terrorist kept quiet during the boarding procedure, his European escort spoke for him, presenting Abdulmutallab as a refugee from Darfur, Sudan, and himself as attached to a Sudanese refugee aid society.
This style of operation is quite alien to the way al Qaeda's Arabian branch works and hints at a different network in the background. One possibility suggested is that the Yemen branch acts as a front and a decoy for shielding fellow al Qaeda networks planted in other places. In this case, the Nigerian may have been the instrument of the new al Qaeda networks, suspected to have been recently established in Europe, as we first reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue 425 of December 11, 2009 (New European Networks Poised to Strike).
Preparing departmental shake-ups
An intriguing pointer in this direction came from the shrewd comment of Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst, who told a news conference at The Hague Wednesday, Dec. 30, that the attack was planned very professionally but sloppily executed.
This might indicate that the Nigerian was not the plotters' first choice for the airliner attack but enlisted at the last minute because of an unexpected hitch in the planning which may never be discovered. According to another scenario, two separate al Qaeda networks set the operation up together – one highly skilled, the other inexpert.
President Obama is under pressure to act fast to restore popular confidence in America's intelligence and security services and minimize the scale of their perceived failure in handling an al Qaeda attack which came frighteningly close to consummation. Tuesday, December 29, he admitted in an audio speech from his vacation resort in Hawaii that there had been "human and systemic failures that contributed to this catastrophic lapse in security."
Some of his advisers are urging him to take advantage of the ready-made US involvement in Yemen to go on the offensive and make quick work of retaliation to silence the critics at home.
But the president realizes that for America to sink its hands deep into in the Yemen mess would be a very short-term shift fraught with danger – all the more so should the Northwestern flight affair prove to be the opening salvo of a new wave of terror which may not originate in Yemen at all.
In the meantime, while pondering the wider problem, the US will no doubt continue to go after al Qaeda bases in Yemen, even though they are neither organized nor permanent.
Heads will also roll when he starts cleaning up the relevant CIA branches, Homeland Security and the National Counter-terrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, for failing to pass on and piece together incoming intelligence anticipating trouble from the Nigerian Islamist.
Obama will have to make good on his words to the American people: "It is my job to ensure our intelligence and homeland security departments are working efficiently and people are made accountable."