WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner embarrassed President Barack Obama and put him on the defensive, but there may be a silver lining for U.S. authorities, it may provide new intelligence on al Qaeda.
A Nigerian charged in the incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent months in Yemen and told investigators he had trained with al Qaeda militants who took refuge there to plot attacks against Americans.
The White House says he is already providing useful information. “Abdulmutallab spent a number of hours with FBI investigators in which we gleaned usable actionable intelligence,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday.
Potentially facing decades in prison, the 23-year-old Abdulmutallab could try to cut a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for information he has about other plots, where he trained in Yemen and details about al Qaeda members he met.
That could be valuable in light of reports that Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a trans-atlantic airliner as it approached Detroit, told investigators after he was captured that more attackers like him were on the way.
“We are continuing to look at ways that we can extract that information from him,” Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said on Sunday. “I think we have to assume that there are others out there.”
However, Obama’s Republican opponents — led by former Vice President Dick Cheney — have strongly opposed the idea of trying Abdulmutallab in a criminal court rather than a military tribunal, where looser interrogation rules apply.
They also have harshly criticized the idea of a plea deal.
“The administration’s treatment could afford a murderous terrorist the opportunity to negotiate a plea bargain and a lesser punishment — and that is not acceptable,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, a top Republican in the House of Representatives.
Even with a plea deal, that would not necessarily mean that Abdulmutallab would get a lighter sentence. Convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid pleaded guilty and will be incarcerated for the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.
“Individuals in the past have, in fact, given us very valuable information as they’ve gone through the plea agreement process,” Brennan said.
Abdulmutallab was quick to tell investigators that he had trained in Yemen with al Qaeda operatives and they had given him the bomb and instructions on how to detonate it aboard the Detroit-bound jumbo jet, U.S. officials said.
Now he has a court-appointed lawyer who can help him navigate the U.S. legal system and potentially bargain for any other information he possesses, if indeed he has any.
One former counterterrorism official expressed some skepticism about what the young man can tell investigators about al Qaeda in Yemen because he was a foot soldier rather than a leader and al Qaeda is made up of many separate cells.
Also he could offer old information or details designed to misdirect U.S. authorities.
“They’re going to do everything they can to glean information,” said Rick Nelson, director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Homeland Security Program. “I just don’t see this guy helping us that much.”
“The best this guy might be able to do is lead U.S. intelligence and law enforcement to the people he dealt with directly, but it’s not going to lead up the chain of command to a long line of senior al Qaeda leaders,” he said.
While Republicans have criticized the Obama administration’s decision to pursue charges against Abdulmutallab in a U.S. criminal court rather than a military tribunal, that route has seen some recent success.
In October, American David Headley was initially charged in a federal criminal court for plotting and scouting targets for an attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005, which offended many Muslims.
After he was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, he began cooperating with investigators and revealed that he had also helped scout targets in the 2008 Mumbai attacks for the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba — the first American to be connected to that attack.
His cooperation led U.S. authorities to charge him for his alleged role in that attack, in which six Americans died, as well as providing new details about how an American was recruited, potentially helping deal with a new fear: the radicalization of Americans sympathetic to such causes.
Editing by David Alexander and David Storey