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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

Obama says Yemeni al-Qaida group armed bomb suspect


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Former Guantanamo prisoner Said Ali al-Shihri is believed to be a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida.

SITE Intelligence Group

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Offering new details of the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner, President Obama yesterday said a Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida trained, armed and directed the Nigerian accused of trying to detonate an explosive onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The president, in an Internet and radio address taped from his year-end vacation in Kailua, vowed retaliation against the global terrorist group, and defended his administration's anti-terrorism efforts in the face of Republican criticism.

"This is not the first time this group has targeted us," Obama said, reporting on some of the findings of an administration review of how intelligence agencies failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Flight 253.

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.

The U.S. plans to more than double its counterterrorism aid to the impoverished, fragmented Arab nation in the coming year to support Yemen's campaign against al-Qaida.

Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived in Yemen yesterday to meet with President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A Yemeni government official said yesterday that it will take time for the additional U.S. funding to reach the front lines, especially after years of limited spending.

"It takes time to order the equipment and set up the programs," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An administration official had said the United States increasingly was confident of a link between Abdulmutallab and an al-Qaida affiliate, but Obama's statement yesterday 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.

Obama said all involved in the Christmas terror attempt "will be held to account."

He also promised to hold accountable U.S. security officials in the wake of an ongoing review into breakdowns in terrorism screening that enabled Abdulmutallab to board the plane despite intelligence that suggested he could pose a threat.

CRITICIZING BUSH

In an apparent response to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who last week accused Obama of "trying to pretend we are not at war" with terrorists, Obama also said he had "made it very clear: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country."

Obama took implicit shots at the Bush administration for its handling of the wars in Iraq and Pakistan, noting that Iraq was not involved in the al-Qaida-launched terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the same time, the president urged lawmakers to overcome partisan divisions and "summon the unity that this moment demands."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a similar appeal for unity in the new year in a weekly address delivered yesterday for the GOP.

"In this New Year, we can be filled with new hope and optimism that our greatest challenges will be met," McConnell said, "that better days are ahead, and that in these difficult times, we will persevere, as we always have, not just for our own individual good, but for the good of all our countrymen."

AID TO YEMEN

Obama noted that in recent years, the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen has bombed government facilities there as well as Western hotels, restaurants and embassies. An attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2008 killed one American.

"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 U.S. provided Yemen $67 million in training and support under the Pentagon's counterterrorism program last year.

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."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.