WASHINGTON — — Offering new details into the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner, President Barack Obama on Saturday 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 vowed retaliation against the global terrorist group, and he gave a full-throated defense of his administration's anti-terrorism efforts in the face of Republican criticism.
In an Internet and radio address from his year-end vacation in Hawaii, Obama offered his most detailed public account yet of the ties between al-Qaida and bombing-attempt suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, saying it appeared that a Yemen affiliate of the terror group "trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America."
Meanwhile, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived in Yemen on Saturday to meet with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and announce that the United States will more than double its counterterrorism aid to Yemen in the coming year. Yemen's government deployed several hundred extra troops to two mountainous eastern provinces that are al-Qaida's main strongholds in the country.
A senior Yemeni government official said Saturday 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 because of the sensitivity of the funding agreement.
In his address, Obama noted al-Qaida's increased activity over recent years in Yemen, including bombings of American targets, and cited efforts by the U.S. and Yemen governments to strike back at the group. The president said all involved in the Christmas terror attempt "will be held to account."
He also promised to hold accountable U.S. security officials - including homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence officers - 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.
In an apparent direct response to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who last week accused Obama of "trying to pretend we are not at war" with terrorists, Obama said he had "made it very clear: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred ... 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 Afghanistan, noting that Iraq was not involved in the al-Qaida-launched terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the same time, the president borrowed a page from the Bush playbook, urging 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 Saturday 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."