U.S. Intelligence Agencies Investigate Possibilities of Broad Terror Plot

A man carrying explosives similar to underwear bomber was arrested in Somalia.

ByABC News
December 30, 2009, 7:23 AM

Dec. 30, 2009— -- As new details emerge about what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in last week's alleged terror attempt, there is growing concern that the threat from radicals based in Africa could be wider than previously anticipated.

On Nov. 11, a Somali man in his late 30s walked into Mogadishu International Airport with an explosive device remarkably similar to the one that failed to detonate on Detroit-bound Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day, authorities said.

It too had powdered chemicals, liquids and a syringe -- just like the one Abdulmutallab, 23, allegedly carried in his underwear and tried to detonate.

The Somali suspect, Abdi Hassan Abdi, was arrested at the airport and remains in custody. The final destination of the Daallo Airlines flight he tried to board was Dubai.

"We don't know whether he's linked with al Qaeda or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him red-handed," a Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, told The Associated Press.

U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to see if the arrest means there is a broader plot involving multiple operatives, ABC News has learned.

Today, there are more indicators that the United States' counterterrorism system may not be functioning properly. Sources told ABC News the intelligence community only informed the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration about the incident involving Abdi this morning.

Tom Kean, chairman of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks, said the recent lack of communication has a familiar ring.

"This feels like after 9/11," Kean told ABC News. "This is, as Yogi Berra would say, deja vu -- the same thing happening over and over again. We have got to find out why. We have got to fix this problem."

Slowly, a picture is emerging of the security lapses in the case involving Abdulmutallab, a failure that President Obama bluntly acknowledged Tuesday.

The National Security Agency had intelligence that "a Nigerian" was in Yemen being prepared for a terrorist assault, but the intelligence was not widely shared within law enforcement agencies because it was considered too vague.

In November, a CIA official met with the father of Abdulmutallab, the suspect being held in the plot, after he reported the increasing radicalization of his son to the U.S. embassy. The tip by the CIA was shared with officials at the National Counterterrorism Center, which houses multiple agencies.

Government officials told ABC News that the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria sent out a cable on Nov. 20 containing only a skimpy summary of the 30-minute meeting between the CIA officer and the suspect's father the day before. One official told ABC News that a slightly more robust summary of the meeting was sent separately back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

The cable allegedly provided instructions to raise alarms if Adbulmutallab applied for a U.S. visa. However, at that point, the suspect already had one. Officials told ABC News the cable did provide biographical information about the suspect, as well as the father's tips that he believed his son was associating with extremists in Yemen.

"We learned of him [Abdulmutallab] in November, when his father came to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him. We did not have his name before then," CIA spokesman George Little said in a statement.

But the intelligence from the National Security Agency about the Nigerian being trained in Yemen apparently was never linked to the information from the father.

"One piece of information by itself may sound vague -- but when you link with a second piece and a third piece, the next thing you know, you have a terrorist plot," Kean said.

Abdulmutallab was on a U.S. terror-watch list but not on the main no-fly list. He had a two-year U.S. visa valid until July 2010, even though the United Kingdom denied him a visa last year and placed him on its watch list.

Abdulmutallab visited the United States twice, most recently in August 2008, to attend a program hosted by Al-Maghrib Institute in Houston.

The young Nigerian national was able to smuggle explosives past two screening checkpoints on two commercial airlines, one of which was a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.

"There does appear to be a failure here at either the CIA or the new National Counterterrorism Center," said Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism adviser to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "The intelligence community seems to have failed here. When they received information that someone was planning an attack, that should've become priority number one: Go out and find any shred of information related to 'a Nigerian' in Yemen."

The Senate has scheduled a hearing for January on the case. Today, senior staffers on Capitol Hill were briefed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, a U.S. official tells ABC News.