Second Christmas Day Plot May Have Been Planned for NYC
The failed bombing attempt over Detroit on Christmas Day may not have been the only attack that extremists planned for the 2009 holiday, with intelligence from overseas three weeks earlier indicating that a plot targeting New York City on the same day may have been in the works, according to an FBI report obtained by Fox News.
"The final target of the attack was not known, but extremist members had allegedly discussed restaurants and night clubs located in New York City," the FBI's assistant legal attache in London wrote in a threat report dated Dec. 4, 2009. "The extremists allegedly discussed conducting the attack on 25 December, to coincide with the Christmas holiday."
The report, sent to U.S. and British counterterrorism officials, warned that "extremists allegedly planned to conduct a test run" that evening, hiding components for an improvised explosive device in a shipment of khat, a plant often chewed like tobacco that has become a tradition for many in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
"The extremists allegedly planned to smuggle unknown components of an unspecified explosive device onto a cargo flight departing ... Nairobi, Kenya on 4 December with a final destination of London, England," said the report, which did not identify the extremists or disclose the source of the information. "The group allegedly did not intend to detonate an explosive device on an aircraft."
In England, a "Caucasian British Muslim ... would [allegedly] facilitate the transfer of the components to [a] flight bound for NYC," according to the report.
In New York, "the group was coordinating its efforts with a Somali man living" in the city, said the report, which identified the possible U.S. suspect only as "Mohammed." The report did not say whether "Mohammed" was a first name or a surname, noting that authorities had no further information about him.
For years, authorities have worried about attacks inside the United States by extremists tied to Somalia, a growing haven for Al Qaeda affiliates that sits across a small body of water from Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that orchestrated the bombing attempt over Detroit, is based.
It's unclear how reliable -- if at all -- the intelligence in the Dec. 4 report turned out to be. Law enforcement officials who spoke with Fox News could not say what came of the report.
Even though one FBI official acknowledged he couldn't "rule out" that a test run and attack in New York City were ultimately attempted, an FBI spokesman who discussed the matter with FBI officials in London and elsewhere said he's "not aware of anything" to suggest the information contained in the report was eventually deemed credible.
"Out of an abundance of caution they pass the information on," the spokesman, Bill Carter, said of reports like the one from London. "Most of it turns out to be just chatter, or there may have been something to it but it didn't happen."
The fact that there "may have been something to it" is why some within the counterterrorism community believe the information contained in the Dec. 4 report could have acted as another warning about an imminent attack on the U.S. homeland.
"[We] were aware of something for Christmas and didn't ring the bell," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "[We] were made aware the day they were supposedly doing a dry run ... [but] didn't warn the airlines, didn't warn everyone that, 'Hey, we were made aware of this so just tighten it up.' And look at what happened."
The official said the attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, in which 23-year-old Umar F. Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate his explosives-laden underwear over Detroit, could have started out as a plot targeting New York, with the planners ultimately deciding against such a strike.
"People don't just drop it and leave, especially not these organizations," the official said of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. "They go look for another way to do it."
The FBI spokesman insisted it's wrong to link information in the Dec. 4 report in any way to the Christmas Day bombing attempt over Detroit, saying that FBI officials involved in the Flight 253 investigation had "no idea" about the Dec. 4 report and were "bewildered" by suggestions that the two could be connected.
"There might be a coincidence," Carter said of the Christmas Day timing. "But I'm not getting any impression that you can draw any conclusions from it."
Carter said holidays and other significant dates "are like a magnet" for terrorist threats. In addition, he said, the Dec. 4 report was based on "raw intelligence, unsubstantiated, uncorroborated information," and on "any given day" there is "detailed information that turns out to just be someone blowing wind."
Two law enforcement officials agreed, noting that the FBI comes across 83,000 such reports each year with "hundreds a month" relating to New York City alone.
The Dec. 4 report from London did not mention Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, nor did it include any information unique to the group or to Abdulmutallab. And, as one official put it, "there were no full names, no flight numbers."
Nevertheless, after the White House's subsequent review of the Flight 253 attack, President Barack Obama said, "The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots."