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Friday, July 25, 2014

Obama: U.S. will pursue all terrorists

By Josh Meyer and Peter Nicholas
Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — President Obama, acting minutes after a Yemeni group affiliated with al-Qaida claimed responsibility for an airplane bombing attempt over Detroit, declared Monday that the United States would continue to press its accelerated offensive against terrorist cells in Yemen and elsewhere in the world.

"Those who would slaughter innocent men, women and children must know that the United States will do more than simply strengthen our defenses," Obama said.

"We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle, and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us — whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland."

Obama's public remarks, made at a Marine base near his Hawaii vacation home, were his first on the incident Dec. 25 in which a 23-year-old Nigerian man tried to detonate a powerful

explosive as the plane made its descent.

Echoing comments earlier in the day by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Obama appeared to acknowledge that the bombing suspect, who had a valid U.S. visa and boarded even though his name had been given to U.S. authorities as a possible threat, exploited at least two holes in the airline travel security net — flagging potentially dangerous travelers and detecting explosives or other dangerous material.

It was also the first time that the administration had indicated it believes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not act alone in an attack that authorities said could have killed all 300 people aboard.

Since the attack, U.S. officials have repeatedly upped their pressure on the Yemen government to help them investigate Abdulmutallab's ties to al-Qaida, which he said had provided training and explosives.

Even before the Detroit incident, the United States — in conjunction with the government of Yemen — had aggressively stepped up its counterterrorism operations in the country, seeking to combat a rapidly expanding al-Qaida network there.

The group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said the airline attack was done in retaliation for airstrikes earlier this month against suspected militants.

In its statement, the al-Qaida affiliate said Abdulmutallab coordinated the plot with members of its group, using explosives that they had manufactured.

The Web site posting was titled "The Brother Mujahid Omar Farooq al-Nigeri's Operation," and it included a photograph of a smiling Abdulmutallab in front of an al-Qaida banner.

It described how al-Qaida specialists manufactured and tested what it called the "highly advanced device" to make sure it worked and was practical, but that "a technical error happened and led to an incomplete detonation."

And, while acknowledging that the attack had not achieved its goal, the statement said, "We will continue on this path until we achieve success," according to a translation posted by the NEFA Foundation, an organization of counter-terrorism specialists.

A U.S. counterterrorism consultant said the statement appeared to be authentic, and U.S. intelligence officials said they would immediately scrutinize it for clues and potential evidence.

In Amsterdam, authorities acknowledged that they are investigating claims that an accomplice may have helped Abdulmutallab board Flight 253 without a passport, possibly by claiming to be a Sudanese refugee.

In Nigeria, authorities continued to gather information — and criminal evidence — after interviewing Abdulmutallab's family and friends and searching several locations in the expanding global investigation.

In Britain, Scotland Yard began to search for clues as to who might have helped radicalize Abdulmutallab during his years as an engineering student there ending in 2008.

In Detroit, a scheduled hearing in Abdulmutallab's case was canceled without explanation, but prosecutors continued their efforts to get a DNA sample from him to match against evidence recovered from the plane.

And in Washington, Napolitano took to the airwaves in an effort to contain the political fallout from remarks a day earlier, in which she emphasized how the system worked, rather than dwell on the failure to keep the suspect off the plane.

When asked on NBC's "Today" show if the system "failed miserably," she answered: "It did."

"Our system did not work in this instance," she said. "No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way."

In his remarks, Obama outlined more aggressive security measures being taken, including enhanced screening and more federal air marshals on international flights. And he said an investigation he has ordered into the safety lapses will strengthen the safety net and "determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard an aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks."

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