Newsweek: Saudis briefed top Obama official about "underwear bombers" in October; Update: MI5 knew of bomber three years ago

Not just underwear bombers generally, either, but underwear bombers trained in Yemen. I feel about this the way I felt about Napolitano’s “the system worked” comment: It’s almost a shame that it didn’t happen under Bush, just because the fireworks from the media’s outrageous outrage afterwards would have been so spectacular.

As it is, don’t expect more than a few sparklers this time.

The briefing to Brennan was delivered at the White House by Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s chief counterterrorism official. In late August, Nayef had survived an assassination attempt by an operative dispatched by the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda who was pretending to turn himself in. The operative had tried to kill the Saudi prince by detonating a bomb on his body, but stumbled on his way into the prince’s palace and blew himself up.

Saudi officials initially thought the bomb had been secreted in the operative’s anal cavity. But after investigating the matter more thoroughly, they concluded it had likely been sewn into his underwear, thereby allowing the operative to bypass security checks before his meeting with the prince. A main purpose of Nayef’s briefing for Brennan was to alert U.S. officials to the use of the underwear technique.

U.S. officials now suspect that Nayef’s attempted assassin and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect aboard the Northwest flight, had the same bomb maker in Yemen, intelligence experts tell NEWSWEEK. At the briefing for Brennan, Nayef was concerned because “he didn’t think [U.S. officials] were paying enough attention” to the growing threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen, said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the briefing.

Another Saudi official denies that they were worried about Obama not taking Yemen seriously — The One did order airstrikes on AQ camps there before Abdulmutallab made his move — but Newsweek’s red-flag hunt isn’t done. Turns out that Abdulmutallab’s mentor, jihadi cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, posted a heavy-handed warning on his website in October about a “surprise” from Yemen that would make it “the single most important front of jihad in the world,” and that calls made to Abdulmutallab from Aulaqi’s own phone were intercepted by the NSA before Christmas. Combine that with the other leads that various arms of U.S. intelligence had and there was enough info floating around in the system to know in advance that (a) Al Qaeda in Yemen was planning an attack, quite possibly on Christmas, involving a Nigerian, and coincidentally (b) a Nigerian named Abdulmutallab who had gone missing after hooking up with jihadis in Yemen and had spent some time yakking on the phone with Yemeni AQ chieftain Aulaqi was booked to fly on Christmas Day. Nuance. Quoth former FBI agent Ali Soufan, “The system should have been lighting up like a Christmas tree.”

But back to that Saudi briefing for John Brennan, whom you’ll remember as the guy who helped develop the terror watch lists for NCTC that failed in this case and who’s now been assigned to, um, review those lists. In fairness, I’m not sure what anyone expected him to do with the detail about underwear bombs. Even now, after a near disaster, the public’s still not gung ho for whole-body imagers and crotch checks by TSA; rolling out those measures as a pure precaution just in time for holiday travel, when there was bipartisan opposition to it in the House, probably wouldn’t have flown. Brennan could have asked that only travelers from Yemen be put through the special whole-body screening — but that wouldn’t have caught Abdulmutallab. He trained in Yemen but didn’t fly from there: His ticket was purchased in Ghana and he flew from Nigeria to Amsterdam for his connection to Detroit. Had Brennan broadened the inquiry and asked for special screening for all young Muslim males (especially those traveling without baggage), that might have caught him. But as the boss noted earlier this week, that sort of profiling — successful though it may be for Israeli airport security — simply isn’t in the cards politically.

So never mind the detail about the underwear. Here’s the real question, which we’re asking for the second time today: Why wasn’t Yemen given special attention as a potential threat under the circumstances? If, per the Saudis’ tip, Brennan had asked the NCTC to re-review leads related to that country, they may well have connected the dots and nailed Abdulmutallab before he ever got on the plane. What happened?

Update: And the missed red flags just keep on coming. The Brits had a file on this turd three years ago thanks to his jihadist activities while at university in the UK. Only now are we getting a copy.

The security services knew three years ago that the Detroit bomber had “multiple communications” with Islamic extremists in Britain, it emerged this weekend.

Counterterrorism officials said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was “reaching out” to extremists whom MI5 had under surveillance while he was studying at University College London…

British officials have now passed a file to their US counterparts on Abdulmutallab’s activities in Britain while he was a student from 2005 to 2008. It shows his repeated contacts with MI5 targets who were subject to phone taps, email intercepts and other forms of surveillance.

Intelligence officials have defended their decision not to flag Abdulmutallab as a possible terrorist risk. They say he was one of many youths who mix with extremists, but are not themselves thought to be involved in plotting or supporting terrorism.