Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an American commercial jet in an audiotape broadcast Sunday on Arab television.
U.S. intelligence officials quickly raised doubts about Bin Laden’s role and suggested the statement was an attempt to score propaganda points for a plot already claimed by an increasingly independent faction of his movement in Yemen.
In the clip, Bin Laden said his group was behind the failed attempt allegedly carried out by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
Addressing President Obama, the Al Qaeda leader vowed to continue launching terrorist attacks against the United States as long as Washington supported what he described as Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians.
“From Osama to Obama: Peace upon the one who follows guidance,” he said on the tape, broadcast on the pan-Arab Al Jazeera satellite news channel, his image appearing on the screen as he spoke. “America will not dream of security until we experience it as a reality in Palestine.”
U.S. intelligence officials on Sunday did not cast doubt on the authenticity of the tape. But they expressed skepticism that Bin Laden or his lieutenants, believed to be based in Pakistan, played a meaningful role in conceiving or executing the Christmas Day plot.
“Al Qaeda in Yemen takes strategic guidance from Al Qaeda’s leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan,” a U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we’ve never seen indications that the senior Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have directed tactical, day-to-day operational planning for them in Yemen. Their relationship hasn’t really functioned that way.”
No evidence has surfaced to indicate that Abdulmutallab traveled to Pakistan in preparation for the plot.
U.S. spy agencies have had to acknowledge their failure to recognize significant clues that began to surface last year indicating that a terrorist plot was taking shape in Yemen, and that the Nigerian allegedly was being groomed by Al Qaeda operatives there for an attack.
U.S. officials described the message from Bin Laden as an attempt to take advantage of a plot hatched by Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen to shore up his own reputation.
“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the failed attack on Christmas Day. That’s clear,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “So a message like this -- no matter whose voice it may be -- should come as no surprise.”
In his message, Bin Laden likened Abdulmutallab to the militants behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
“If our messages to you could be carried by words, we would not have delivered them by planes,” Bin Laden said on the tape, which could not be immediately verified independently. “The message we want to communicate to you through the plane of the hero, the holy warrior Umar Farouk, . . . is a confirmation of a previous message, which was delivered to you by the heroes of [Sept. 11] and which was repeated previously and afterward.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an apparent offshoot of Bin Laden’s loosely defined organization, had claimed responsibility for the attempted attack, in which the 23-year-old Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear.
Many analysts have suggested that the Christmas Day attack was carried out without Bin Laden’s input, in a sign of Al Qaeda’s continued splintering.
The Yemen branch has strengthened its leadership and has a more focused ideology and strategy than years ago when militants in the country frequently looked to militant leaders in Pakistan or Afghanistan for guidance.
The nature of the plot and the device employed were similar to a suicide bombing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula carried out last year against the head of Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism program. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef survived that strike, in part because he may have been shielded from the force of the blast.
The attempt on Muhammad appeared to be a precursor to the botched Christmas Day attack. In both instances, the explosive PETN was used. Both devices went undetected by airport security. The bomber targeting Muhammad had the explosive in his rectum; it was triggered by a telephone call. The bomber died and Muhammad was lightly wounded.
But the Yemen group also has ties to Bin Laden. The alleged leader of the Yemen branch, Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi, trained in Afghanistan and once acted as a secretary to the Al Qaeda leader, whose ancestral home is Yemen.
Wahishi’s second in command, Saeed Ali Shehri, a Saudi who spent years in U.S. detention at the Guantanamo Bay prison, was captured in 2001 in the lawless tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border, where Bin Laden is believed to be holed up. Shehri was released from Guantanamo in 2007 and underwent a Saudi rehabilitation program before moving to Yemen.
Wahishi and Shehri drew together a scattering of militants arriving in Yemen from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with more than 20 extremists who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006. Shehri is believed to be behind a 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen that killed 19, including an American citizen.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.