Bluntly admitting a "systemic failure" of US security procedures, President Obama last night ordered a report within 48 hours on what went wrong to allow a young Nigerian student to come within an ace of blowing up a Detroit-bound plane.
In his strongest statement on the incident – one of the most perilous terrorist threats since the 11 September attacks – Mr Obama acknowledged both human and systemic mistakes that had led to a "catastrophic" breach of security.
"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred," the President said in Hawaii last night, where he is on a Christmas break with his family. "I consider that totally unacceptable."
Mr Obama's stark words are a measure of how the almost successful attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is sending shockwaves far beyond the US. It leaves little doubt that Yemen, where the attack appears to have been planned, will become a de facto third front in America's "war on terror" after Afghanistan and Iraq. It could also further delay the President's promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
New details leave little doubt of the gravity of the attempted bombing. According to experts, the 80 grams of PETN explosive concealed in Abdulmutallab's underwear could have ripped a hole in the plane's side as it approached Detroit airport. The device was twice as powerful as the one used by the convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid on a transatlantic flight in December 2001.
The affair has ignited a furious political debate over US anti-terrorist procedures, with Republicans assailing the Obama administration for the system's failure to identify Abdulmutallab as a risk, despite a host of pointers.
Among these, critics say, are the suspect's purchase of a single ticket with cash, the fact that he was making the long journey from Nigeria to the US without luggage, and the warning given to the US authorities, including a CIA official, by Abdulmutallab's father that his son had developed alarming extremist leanings. But it is the Yemen connection that is causing the most concern, and reinforcing doubts about the wisdom of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
It now seems that at least two detainees from the prison who were released to Yemen are part of the al-Qa'ida affiliate group – called al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula – that has claimed responsibility for the attack. They are Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, a field commander, and Said al-Shihri, said to be the group's deputy leader, who was transferred by the Bush administration to the Saudi authorities and released in 2007. Abdulmutallab, 23, was living in Yemen between August and December this year, and has told investigators it was there that he was supplied with the device he tried to detonate. Earlier this month, the White House announced its intention to transfer the bulk of Guantanamo detainees to an empty prison in northern Illinois, and resettle most of the rest in third countries. That remains the plan, officials say. But of the 200-odd prisoners remaining at Guantanamo almost half are from Yemen – and only last week six Yemenis were sent back to their own country, even though it is a hotbed of al-Qa'ida activity.
According to top Yemeni officials, up to 300 al-Qa'ida militants could be based there, some of whom may be plotting new attacks on Western targets. "Of course there are a number of al- Qa'ida operatives in Yemen, and some of their leaders. We realise this danger," Yemen's Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, told the BBC.
Mr Abu Bakr al-Qirbi insisted that for all its weaknesses, and its wars with Shia rebels in the north and separatists in the south, Yemen's central government was committed to the conflict with al-Qa'ida. But, he said, it was not getting enough support from the West.
"We have to expand our counter-terrorism units and this means providing them with the necessary training, military equipment," he said. The US, Britain and the EU could all help out, he added.
However the immediate priority for the Obama administration – and a prime reason for the President's forceful words last night – is to regain control of the political fallout of the incident, amid accusations that, with its focus on healthcare reform, it took its eye off the terrorist ball.
"I don't believe we'll ever have more advance warning of an attack on America," one anti-terrorist specialist said yesterday, incredulous that Abdulmutallab's US visa had not been revoked, and that he was not on a list that would have stopped him boarding a US-bound plane.
Officials say that the father's warning alone was not enough of a red flag. But Mr Obama has ordered a full review of the watch-list system, as well as an increase in the number of air marshalls on incoming international flights. But that has not defused the issue in the ferociously partisan political climate here. Republicans see fresh opportunity to paint Mr Obama as weak on terrorism, and will carry the offensive into Congressional hearings on the bombing attempt, set for next month.
Internet posts: 'I feel depressed and lonely and don't know what to do'
From online posts by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who styled himself as Farouk1986 on the Islamic Forum messageboard
28 January 2005, 9.57pm
I have no friend. Either people do not want to get too close to me as they go partying and stuff while I dont, or they are bad people who befriend me and influence me to do bad things. Hence I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And then I think this loneliness leads me to other problems. As I get lonely, the natural sexual drive awakens and I struggle to control it, sometimes leading to minor sinful activities like not lowering the gaze.
1 February 2005, 7.43pm
I joke, I laugh, I talk, I socialise with everybody around me without trying to get out of limits. But sometimes one just wants to have more meaningful discussions with good Muslims, get support and encouragement, especially when one stands out alone.
5 February 2005, 11.47am
My name is Umar but you can call me Farouk... I plan to head to Stanford University, California to study Engineering, or UC Berkeley or Caltech. Imperial College London gave me an offer so if I don't go to Cali, I plan to go to London. Anyway I get lonely sometimes because I have never found a true Muslim friend. I'm active, I socialise with everybody around me, no conflicts, I laugh and joke but not excessively.
8 February 2005, 4.20pm
How much we believe in something will determine how much it will help us. And because Allah is great, sometimes we do not really believe in something because we do not understand it, but out of his mercy, Allah sometimes helps us out.
24 March 2005, 7.35pm
Why not forgive Bush for invading Muslim lands and killing my Muslim brothers and sisters, all the people who oppress the Muslims and all people who do me wrong, for surely, Allah's torment is enough for them if they don't repent sincerely, I don't need to add more torment on them. Also I might have oppressed so many people in ways I do not perceive, or hurt them, or cause them harm without knowing, so I hope Allah also forgives me for my own short comings.
11 May 2005, 12.31pm
Just be patient and tolerant especially when you have different point of views with other people. Many times you are offended by somebody, but they did not intend that.
16 June 2005, 6.29pm
I finally got my wish. After a hard battle deciding where to go and what to do, I finally ended up in Yemen. I'm doing a 3 month Arabic course and so far it is just great... Its fun too.
14 August 2005, 5.50pm
When is lying allowed to deceive the enemy? I know the prophet allowed someone to say he didn't believe in Allah so that he will not be killed (or tortured – not too sure). So this is the only case when that deception is allowed.
27 August 2005, 6.03pm
Let me be more specific, should Muslims lie in order not to wrongfully get in trouble with Kafirs... especially at this time we're in?