We are still in the early hours of the investigation into an attempted terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight leaving Amsterdam. So, any analysis at this point is by definition preliminary. Be that as it may, here are some initial observations and questions.
The first question that will be asked is: Was this the act of a so-called "lone wolf" extremist or a terrorist acting in concert with the al Qaeda terror network?
Early press accounts suggest a partial answer.
The suspect, Nigerian-national Umar Farouk Abdul Mudallad (or Mutallab, depending on the transliteration), has reportedly "said he received instructions and training from al Qaeda operatives based in Yemen ahead of boarding the Detroit-bound flight Friday." Early this afternoon, CNN reported that Mudallad told his family that he was leaving for Yemen two months ago and that they couldn't reach him. Based on these reports, it appears that Mudallad had the opportunity to mingle, at the very least, with al Qaeda operatives based in Yemen.
There are also reports that Mudallad may have become involved with extremists in London, where he went to school. This is potentially important because al Qaeda and allied organizations have a significant presence in London, which has proven to be a fertile recruiting ground. Thus, the great city has earned the nickname "Londonistan."
There is a big picture point to all of these reported ties - even if we do not yet know what, if anything, they add up to.
Every time an incident such as this occurs, there are a number of public analysts, law enforcement officials and intelligence professionals who are quick to label it a "one-off event" with no substantive ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network or any other professional terrorist organization. This happened, for example, in the case of the Fort Hood shooter. The FBI and others were quick to downplay any ties between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and known terrorists. Within days, however, it emerged that Hasan received spiritual guidance, at a minimum, from a leading al Qaeda cleric. This should have greatly undermined the "Hasan is not a terrorist" storyline that emerged, but it still stuck.
We still don't know the extent of Hasan's ties to al Qaeda, but it is clear that the rush to label him a "lone wolf" terrorist disconnected from the broader terrorist threat clouded the FBI's early investigation.
Mudallad's early admissions should stop a similar storyline from developing here. It is possible that Mudallad's admitted link to al Qaeda in Yemen is a ruse, or over reported in the early accounts. But investigators have to come up with good, sound reasons to discount it.
The next question that arises, then, is: What are Mudallad's ties to al Qaeda, exactly? Did al Qaeda train Mudallad, and/or show him how to attempt such an attack?
One of the key pieces of evidence investigators are reportedly exploring is the type of explosive Mudallad tried to detonate. In the past, al Qaeda has repeatedly used TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide) explosives in its attacks and plots against airliners. This is the type of explosive that the infamous shoe bomber, Richard Reid, used in late 2001. If Mudallad tried to use a similar device, then this is a pretty good indication (although not necessarily conclusive) that al Qaeda showed Mudallad how to go about blowing up a plane.
Furthermore, if Mudallad's admission is true, then this means that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) played a role in the plot, and perhaps even orchestrated it. AQAP is headquartered in Yemen and was formed after al Qaeda's two Arabian branches - one in Saudi Arabia, the other Yemen - merged. U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly pointed to AQAP as the strongest al Qaeda branch outside of South Asia. If Mudallad is being honest when he says that he was in touch with al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, and is not just a "wanna be," then it is AQAP he is talking about.
Some of the most senior positions in AQAP are held by former Guantanamo detainees. Said al Shihri, AQAP's #2 leader, is a former Gitmo detainee. Al Shihri was reportedly involved in al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen in September 2008. AQAP's leading ideologue is Ibrahim Rubaish, who is another Gitmo alum. Rubaish is responsible for providing theological justifications for al Qaeda's terror. Did al Shihri, Rubaish or some other senior AQAP leader play a role in Mudallad's attempt at mass murder?
We don't know, but it is one angle to this story that is worth keeping an eye on. By the way, the Fort Hood shooter's cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, is another senior AQAP-affiliated cleric. Awlaki's home in Yemen was recently the target of an airstrike that had senior AQAP personnel - including Awlaki (who reportedly survived) and al Shihri - in its crosshairs.
We can only speculate about who within AQAP assisted Mudallad - if in fact he did receive assistance from AQAP. But it is not speculative at all to note that if AQAP did support Mudallad's plot, then this puts an exclamation point on security concerns about Yemen.
Mudallad's story raises the possibility that AQAP is playing a larger role in promulgating international terrorism - not just fighting an insurgency that threatens the government of Yemen. This is a sign of strength, indeed.
Finally, all of this could also further complicate the Obama administration's attempts to close Guantanamo. Around 90 or more of the remaining 198 detainees are Yemeni. The Bush administration did not repatriate many of them to their home country because of security concerns. The Obama administration has similarly been reluctant to transfer large numbers of detainees because the Yemeni government has an abysmal track record when it comes to keeping tabs on known al Qaeda terrorists.
President Saleh's regime is also notoriously duplicitous, and works with al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist organizations at times. Thus far, the American government has not wanted to risk transferring or releasing the Gitmo Yemenis to Saleh's custody because it could easily lead to their rejoining the jihad in short order.
The Yemen part of Mudallad's story is, therefore, of paramount importance. It is too early to tell how important this aspect is, but we should be gravely concerned - to say the least.