Calling it ‘war’, Obama pegs Christmas Day attack to Al Qaeda

Responding to critics of what is seen as his measured approach, Obama says the “nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." He calls for national unity.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Monday. In his Saturday radio address, Obama said Al Qaeda was behind the recent attempted attack on a US airliner.
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In his first Saturday morning address of the New Year, President Obama acknowledged an international terror syndicate – Al Qaeda – has struck the US on his watch.

Coming after days of political acrimony that stood in sharp contrast to the national solidarity shown after 9/11, Mr. Obama said Saturday that a Yemeni affiliate of Al Qaeda trained the suspect and “equipped him with … explosives and directed him to attack [the plane] headed for America.” He added that he thinks of the security of the US “every moment of every day.”

The move does two things. Obama reframes the attack, in essence taking responsibility for the ability of Al Qaeda to maneuver past US airline security defenses. The President has ordered at least two investigations that are expected to report back within days. But the tougher language also addresses growing political unease with the President’s careful approach to the conflict formerly known as the war on terror.

'This moment demands unity'

In his Saturday address, Obama asked politicians and the American people to forego not debate, but partisanship, saying that unity as a nation is what “this moment demands.”

Former CIA agent Kent Clizbe, an outspoken Obama critic, said in an interview last week that the attack means the President will be forced to acknowledge the “reality” of international terror versus the “fantasy” version: Obama's strategy, as Clizbe sees it, of humbling America before the world to ease recruitment and activity among Islamic extremists.

“The reality is there are Islamists who are bent on the destruction of the United States and the western world,” says Mr. Clizbe. “Whether the face we show on the evening news is George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Barack Hussein Obama makes absolutely no difference to them. They care not a wit who is the head of the United States.”

Critics contend that Obama's campaign promise that international cooperation and diplomacy would curtail terror recruiting and activity is now open for debate – and attack – by the president's political opponents.

"Republicans can respond by saying, 'We have now had a year to test that theory, and we think it has been proven wrong,'" Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official, told the Wall Street Journal Friday.

Nevertheless, the White House lashed out at critics, including former vice president Dick Cheney, last week for politicizing the Christmas Day attack. Mr. Cheney said Obama’s careful view of the attack – calling the bomber a “suspect” and not mentioning Al Qaeda – seemed to indicate Obama doesn’t feel the nation is at war, a tactic that is making Americans less safe.

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But in his Saturday address, Obama does use “war” to describe the battle against Al Qaeda, a word he has so far largely avoided. “[O]ur nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country,” Obama said. (Earlier, Obama had called alleged airline attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab an "isolated extremist.")

Moreover, many experts pointed out that it took former president George W. Bush nearly two weeks to acknowledge the shoe-bomber incident in 2001, while Mr. Obama was criticized for waiting two days before addressing the nation about the young Nigerian man who tried to blast a hole in the fuselage of a Northwest Airlines passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. The bomb, hidden in the man’s clothing, failed to detonate. He is now in US custody.

Yemen becoming part of fight against Al Qaeda

Meanwhile, the US has quietly stepped up its support of counter-terror efforts in Yemen, an emerging battle front in the struggle against global terror syndicates like Al Qaeda, while boosting troop levels by 50,000 in Afghanistan.

In a thinly-veiled criticism of Bush’s counter-terror strategy, Obama said Saturday morning that his administration has “refocused the fight” against Al Qaeda while “bringing a responsible end to the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.”

Still, the President’s acknowledgement of the attack as an Al Qaeda conspiracy could signal a tougher White House approach regarding counter-terror tactics. While acknowledging faults, the President is now also more likely to highlight counter-terror successes, which White House officials say the President has resisted doing up to now.

Obama faces several key decisions, including the final closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, which now holds dozens of Yemeni militants, as well as how to repair intelligence failures in the run-up to the Christmas Day attack.

And then there are still questions about the true nature of the Fort Hood attack nearly two months earlier. Heavily involved in the growth of Yemen as an Al Qaeda hideout is the radical US-born cleric Anwar Al-Awliki, who was in contact with US Maj. Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at a deployment center on fort Hood on Nov. 5, killing 13. Awaiting several investigations due this month, the President has not used the words “terror attack” to describe Hasan’s rampage.

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