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Al-Qaida's Yemen branch favors opportune targets

When an admitted al-Qaida operative planned his itinerary for a Christmas 2009 airline bombing, he considered launching the strike in the skies above Houston or Chicago, the Associated Press has learned. But tickets were too expensive, so he refocused the mission on a cheaper destination: Detroit.

The decision is among new details emerging about one of the most sensational terrorism plots to unfold since President Obama took office. It shows that al-Qaida's Yemen branch does not share Osama bin Laden's desire to attack symbolic targets, preferring instead to strike at targets of opportunity. Like the plot that nearly blew up U.S.-bound cargo planes last year, the cities themselves didn't matter. That strategy has helped the relatively new group quickly become the No. 1 threat to the United States.

After the failed bombing and the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the question of why Detroit was targeted had gone unanswered. Previous reports revealed that Abdulmutallab did not specifically choose Christmas for his mission.

Abdulmutallab considered Houston, where he attended an Islamic conference in 2008, current and former counterterrorism officials told the AP. Another person with knowledge of the case said Abdulmutallab also considered Chicago, but was discouraged by the cost. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

While the target and timing were unimportant, the mission itself was a highly organized plot that involved one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists and al-Qaida's go-to bomb maker, current and former officials said. Before Abdulmutallab set off on his mission, he visited the home of al-Qaida manager Fahd al-Quso to discuss the plot and the workings of the bomb.

Al-Quso, 36, is one of the most senior al-Qaida leaders publicly linked to the Christmas plot. His association with al-Qaida stretches back more than a decade to his days in Afghanistan when, prosecutors said, bin Laden implored him to "eliminate the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula."

After meeting with al-Quso, Abdulmutallab left Yemen in December 2009 and made his way to Ghana, where he paid $2,831 in cash for a round-trip ticket from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit and back.

Abdulmutallab, 24, is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring with others to kill 281 passengers and 11 crew members aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

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