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Updated: January 8, 2010 08:37 IST

Obama rules out sackings over US plane security failure

Guardian News Service
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President Barack Obama speaks about the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing on Thursday. Photo: AP
AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing on Thursday. Photo: AP

Barack Obama ruled out any sackings over the failed Christmas Day plot on Thursday despite a catalogue of intelligence failures that could have prevented the alleged al-Qaida bomber from boarding the plane.

As the row gathered momentum, a White House official said the president would resist pressure to dismiss people and would take personal responsibility, arguing that as commander-in-chief the buck stopped with him.

The official spoke ahead of the release of an unclassified White House report that detailed the series of mistakes by the CIA, the state department, the national counter-terrorism centre and a host of other agencies which failed to spot the potential threat.

Yemen, Britain and Nigeria were meanwhile engaged in a furious bout of buck-passing over their roles in the bomb plot. Yemen's deputy prime minster and security supremo, Rashad al-Alimi, sought to deflect criticism by insisting that the accused man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was recruited and radicalised in London - an assessment flatly rejected by the British security service MI5.

Mr. Alimi also claimed that Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian student who flew from Ghana to Nigeria and then on to the Netherlands and the US, had obtained the explosives in Nigeria, not Yemen.

Abdulmutallab spent months in Yemen where US officials say he met al-Qaida operatives. He is due to appear in court in Detroit for the first time today on charges of attempting to bomb a US plane.

Mr. Obama's decision not to make scapegoats of one or two heads of the dozen US agencies involved is partly politically-driven. Giving into Republican or media pressure by making sackings would add to the sense of political crisis.

The White House national security adviser, James Jones, yesterday told USA Today that Americans would feel “shock” about the missed clues that could have prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding the plane in Amsterdam. He said Obama was alarmed by the findings. “That's two strikes,” Mr. Jones said, referring to the plane bomb plot and the shooting at Fort Hood late last year. Mr. Obama “certainly doesn't want that third strike”.

Abdulmutallab's father in Nigeria alerted the CIA to concerns about his son, and there were other warnings that were not acted on. Officials from the department of homeland security admitted yesterday that they also became concerned about Abdulmutallab, but only when he was already in the air en route to Detroit.

The Yemen move to shift blame elsewhere comes after reports that the US planned to seek retribution in the country for the failed bomb attempt. But Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, ruled this out, saying there would be no direct military intervention.

The US claims its involvement is confined to indirect aid to Yemen's armed forces in the fight against al-Qaida and other groups regarded as extremist. Yemen insisted yesterday that the fight against al-Qaida must be conducted by its own forces.

Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, its foreign minister, said Yemen wanted only training and equipment to combat terrorism, and called for this month's international conference in London on Afghanistan and Yemen to refrain from interfering in the country's internal affairs.

Mr. Qirbi dismissed as “rumours” and “misinformation” reports that foreign forces were already operating in Yemen - a reference to reliable accounts of US involvement in providing intelligence and mounting air strikes against al-Qaida. Anti-government Houthi rebels in the north of the country have also alleged that US planes flew recent bombing missions in support of the Yemeni army.

“The Yemen government has repeatedly affirmed that they do not accept the presence of foreign troops except for cooperation in the training of the Yemeni military,” Mr. Qirbi said.

Mr. Alimi told a press conference that Abdulmutallab had joined al-Qaida in London and that he met Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim preacher, during his time in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was an English-speaking cleric linked to the army officer who ran amok at a US army base in Texas in November, shooting dead 13 people.

Senior British counter-terrorism officials dismissed the claim that Abdulmutallab was recruited in London. They described his radicalisation as a long journey which began at school in Togo and culminated in a decisive six-month period in Yemen before he tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.

He came to MI5's attention during the three years he studied at University College London, because of his contacts with extremist websites, security sources said. That information was passed to US intelligence agencies, but there was nothing to suggest that he was a terrorist.

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