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CNN NEWSROOM

More Information on the Terrorism Attempt

Aired December 26, 2009 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Terror over Detroit, Michigan. An alleged plot to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit fails and now the investigation is spanning the globe. I'm Drew Griffin. We would like to welcome our international viewers to a CNN special, terror on flight 253. Face to face with a terror suspect, federal investigators say this is the man who allegedly plotted to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit. But instead of disaster in the air, there was just a pop, a puff of smoke and a commotion to tackle Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. He is hospitalized and facing charges of attempting to destroy a U.S. airplane and placing a destructive device inside the aircraft. He reportedly claims that he is tied to al Qaeda and now the investigation is growing across three continents as airports worldwide are amping up security.

We're using our global resources to cover every angle of this story. We have Deb Feyerick on the ground in Detroit for the latest on the terror investigation and charges. Homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is in Washington, DC with a look at how the government is responding. Richard Quest in Amsterdam where the Northwest flight to Detroit originated and senior international correspondent Nic Roberts following this trail in London where it appears the suspect attended college.

How did this happen and who is this person and did al Qaeda play a role? Who was the passenger who took decisive action? In this next hour we are going to try to get the answers to these and many, many other questions. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab had his first hearing before a judge late this afternoon. It wasn't in a courtroom. The suspect is at an Ann Arbor hospital where he is being treated for burns. Peggy Agar from CNN affiliate WXYZ in Detroit was there as this suspect was charged.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PEGGY AGAR, WXYZ REPORTER: When he came in, he said very little but he did talk to the judge when the judge asked him questions. He spoke very good English and understood everything that the judge was saying. He answered all the questions. He had sort of a smile, I'd say a pleasant demeanor for being in a courtroom situation. He did not seem like he was scared at all, maybe a little bit nervous. Before the proceeding even started, one of the Federal agents had asked him are you doing better today? And he said he was, he was doing better than yesterday. And they said, so better than how you felt when we brought you here and he nodded yes. So he was very pleasant talking to investigators and the judge along the way. A couple times the judge asked him if he understood what was going on and he said yes I do. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: Our Deb Feyerick is joining us live from Detroit international airport with the very latest on this terror probe and we learned a lot of details from the charges filed today, Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Drew, what is so interesting about all of this is really his demeanor, the fact that this suspect is accused of plotting to bring down a passenger plane, killing himself and some 300 people onboard and yet he was calm, he was smiling during this hearing. All of that clearly a factor as to his state of mind. But he is being treated at the burn unit. He was wheeled into a conference room wearing a green hospital gown. His legs were covered. He was handcuffed to the wheelchair. He had burns on one of his hands and two thumbs, all of that bandaged. Two people who were in the room with him say what was so surprising is that he really looked so young. Even though he is 23 years old he almost appeared to have the physical appearance of a teenager. So this was an initial appearance.

He is accused of having an explosive device and trying to detonate that explosive device to bring down that plane. He was surrounded by several FBI agents who were there in that conference room with him. They were guarding him. The judge asked how he was doing. He told him that today was a better day. Also he told the judge that he did not have enough money to afford his own attorneys which is a little bit surprising because he does come from a well-to-do-family. The judge did appoint Federal defenders to represent him. They asked for access to the plane. They also said that their client could potentially need skin grafts. Again, this device detonating on his legs where he received second and third degree burns. The prosecutors who brought these charges, they say that Mutallab is a flight risk, that he's a danger to the community and they say that they want DNA samples taken. That is something that the judge is going to look into on Monday.

Now as for these charges, when you read this affidavit, Drew, you get some very interesting details that apparently, just as the plane was beginning its descent, he got up, went into the bathroom, was there for about 20 minutes. When he came out he said that he was having, that his stomach was upset. He took his seat in 19-A, sort of towards the front of the plan, right by the window. He pulled a blanket up over himself and there was a moment, there was that explosion noise and fire climbing up the side of the airplane where quick thinking passengers and flight attendants were able to react, put out that fire. One of them actually according to the affidavit grabbed a syringe which may have been used to try to ignite the explosives that apparently he was carrying on him. Right now all of this under investigation. He is at the burn unit. Not clear just how long he will be there. Several court proceedings over the next couple of weeks. Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Deb Feyerick live at Detroit international airport. Well here is how it unfolded. On Christmas eve it was about 5:00 p.m. Eastern time the suspect boarded (INAUDIBLE) flight 588. That was from Lagos, Nigeria for a nonstop flight to Amsterdam. About 6 1/2 hours later at 11:37 p.m., the plane lands at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. There was a three-hour layover there. The suspect screened again and then took off on Christmas morning just before 3:00 in the morning on Northwest flight 253 on a nine-hour flight to Detroit. At about 12:30 p.m. Christmas day, 20 minutes from landing, the suspect allegedly set off some kind of explosive device in his lap. Passengers and crew put out a small fire and subdued the suspect. The plane landed safely in Detroit at 12:51 p.m. and he was carted off by security officials.

Security screeners at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport are under the microscope. But Dutch officials say they did everything they were expected to do. CNN's Richard Quest picks up the story live in Amsterdam, fairly defensive there about the screening that took place, right, Richard?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think they are defensive. And for one reason, Schiphol airport is a major interchange for KLM and for Air France, for Delta and the sky team alliance. So any allegation that if you like the security was wanting here would be extremely serious. It is a major and very modern international airport. What I understand happened here yesterday on Christmas day is that the suspect did, indeed, transfer from the Lagos, Nigeria flight across to the Northwest Detroit flight and they say in the words that were used to me by officials here is that security was well performed.

Now, different airports in different parts of the world do it in different ways but the substance is still the same. At some point any passenger transferring to a U.S. flight will go through a metal detector and have their baggage x-rayed. Drew, what may not have happened and looks like it did not happen in this case was the so- called secondary search where the bag would be opened and where perhaps the passenger would be patted down. I've crossed the Atlantic more times than most and I can tell you the number of times you get that secondary search is a handful. Your luggage is always x-rayed. You always go through a metal detector, but by and large, that is just the end of it until, of course, this incident. Tonight, let me tell you, that airports around the world are once again introducing more stringent secondary searching often involving body searches.

GRIFFIN: Richard, this is what is troubling to the security officials that I have talked to. The screening in Amsterdam is basically the screening that you'd get in Chicago, in Detroit, in New York. It's very much the same. So the idea that this did take place with the screening leads us to think that we need to do much, much more on an everyday basis.

QUEST: And there, Drew, you have put your finger firmly on the pulse of the problem of what took place. This is an alleged suspect who went through the recognized screening process. This person got onboard the aircraft with an accelerant and a flammable liquid of some sort and was able to start the fire. Privately security officials will tell you that they've always known this is the case. You can go to the lavatory and set fire to a newspaper if that was your so wish. The fact that there was an accelerant involved in some form of catalyst, that of course is gravely disconcerting. It does mean that people are going to have to rethink the unthinkable. In that respect what you are talking about is passengers accepting a greater degree of search. Because let's face it, whether or not you are initially talking about U.S. flights, if they become too hard to target, you target UK and European flights, then Asia flights. So that is going to be the future direction I believe of what we're seeing, more security, more thorough security, more delays.

GRIFFIN: Richard Quest, thank you joining us from Amsterdam tonight.

Here is what we know about Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the suspect, must 23 years old from Nigeria, educated at the university college of London from September 2005 to June of 2008. He went through normal security procedures in Amsterdam as Richard Quest is reporting. He also had been granted a multi-year, multi-entry tourist visa to the U.S. at the U.S. Embassy in London. That was back in June of 2008. Sources tell CNN that while he is not believed to be on any fly, no- fly lists I should say, his name does appear in a U.S. database of people with suspect connections.

His father is a retired chairman of the First Bank Plc in Nigeria. We are learning it was his father who contacted the U.S. embassy in Nigeria a few weeks ago. It seems that the father was concerned his son had become radicalized and could be planning something. Let's go London where CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is standing by. Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Drew, some very interesting details emerging today. In 2008 that was when Abdul Mutallab completed his studies here at university college London, the three-year mechanical engineering course. That same summer of 2008 is when he got a multiple visa entry to the United States. That same summer as well was when his family first became worried that he was perhaps becoming radicalized. He asked them if he could go and study in Cairo or in Saudi Arabia. They said no because they believed he was meeting with suspicious people. So at the same time he was being granted this multiple entry visa to the United States, his family amongst themselves were already back in the summer of 2008 raising the alarm bells.

What has been happening behind me today is the luxury apartment block where he Abdul Mutallab lived when he was in London, a ground floor apartment here, very expensive apartment, some $2 million to $4 million each to buy an apartment here. Ten minute walk away from the university he was studying at. Police have been going through the family's apartment in this building. What is interesting there is that they have suspended their search tonight. They secured it with this police tape and there are policemen on patrol at the corners of this building and those anti-terrorism policemen will be back to continue their investigation tomorrow. But the fact that they have paused overnight does seem to indicate that they are not finding them something that is leading them on to believe that there is another potential terror attack that is imminent. Under those circumstances, it would be easy to imagine the police in greater numbers here working through the night to try and sift out all that information.

What they will likely be doing is piecing together what they can find in that apartment with what they knew about him when he was here in Britain and perhaps the police already aware of some of those worries that his family had that while he was at university in Britain, he could have been coming in contact with hard line Islamic radicalizers. Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Nic, we're going to talk about that later in this hour about possible connections to al Qaeda. We will see you in just a little bit.

First though, we want to go to Hawaii, not close to the action, but it's where the commander in chief is on vacation. We're going to have a live report on how the president is keeping track of this investigation.

And traveling on Saturday was no holiday for airline passengers. We look at the impact. That is ahead as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: When you are president you are never really on vacation. President Barack Obama learned that the hard way on Friday. He is spending the holidays in Hawaii and following events in the terror investigation from Hawaii. CNN senior White House correspondent Ed Henry joins me live. Ed, what are you hearing from the administration?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Drew, you are right. Obviously all of these kinds of national security challenges follow this president. Any U.S. president now in this modern era, everywhere he goes, so you are never completely on vacation. The president started early this morning about 6:20 local time, five hours back from the east coast, just before noon Eastern time with a briefing, two of his top aides, his principal homeland security advisor John Brennan (ph), Dennis McDonough (ph), one of his top national security aides. Basically we are being told the president is being kept abreast of the investigation, specific things such as whether or not there is an al Qaeda connection.

One senior U.S. official familiar with the investigation is telling CNN that in the initial stages of the investigation, there really was nothing in terms of evidence to have a direct connection between the suspect and an organized terror group like al Qaeda. There are reports coming out suggesting that in his interrogations with the FBI the suspect is suggesting there were connections to al Qaeda. What U.S. officials are saying tonight is, look, after someone is arrested they say all kinds of things. It has to be verified. It has to be checked out. They are not believing everything the suspect is saying. They are checking it out, combing across several continents to try to get to the bottom of this whole story.

The other key thing I wanted to point out is administration officials this evening now pushing back on reports saying the suspect was on some sort of a watch list. Perhaps the administration should have realized that, not allow him to fly into the country. Number one, administration officials are saying there are over 400,000 individuals in what's known as a terrorist screening database, 14,000 people on what's called a selectee list where they have to get mandatory secondary screening, less than 4,000 people on a no-fly list. Administration officials telling me that this suspect was not on either of those smaller lists, no-fly or demanding secondary screening because while he was on sort of the broader watch list, somebody to keep an eye on, he had not done anything specifically in recent years to put him on the no-fly list. And pushing back on that, while acknowledging there is going to be scrutiny of what did go wrong here and believe me, there is going to be scrutiny as you know. Various senators on Capitol Hill, including Democrats like Jay Rockefeller saying they are going to be holding hearings early in the new year to get to the bottom of what went wrong here, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And politics now starting to slip into this thing. We are hearing from Representative Peter King, of course, Republican out of New York, criticizing a lack of any face on this from the administration. Where is the president? Where is Vice President Biden? Where is Secretary Napolitano? Quite frankly, we haven't seen them either and we've been asking for some administration officials to come forward and talk to us. Here's what Peter King said where is someone from the administration coming forward to explain what is happening and how in the world we are on top of this?

HENRY: You know, I just put that to a senior administration official and said, where is the president? Why hasn't he made a public statement? This is in sharp contrast to when I was covering President Bush. Rightly or wrongly, again let people decide the politics of whether that the better way of doing it, but it is certainly a different style. President Bush in a situation like this would be out there, would be commenting publicly. This senior administration official said look, President Obama has got a different style. He doesn't feel like he needs to be out there out front. He is going to let the professionals who are doing this investigation do it. I pressed and said wait, why not reassure the public, at least go out there. They're hearing all these media reports about an attempted terror attack. Why not reassure them? The answer I got back is, look, Secretary Napolitano is going to be going on some Sunday shows including I understand on CNN "State of the Union" tomorrow and is going to be reassuring the public, telling the public what information they have. But you're absolutely right. There is going to be critics out there wondering whether the president himself should be out there commenting on this, Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Ed, we are going to have one of them on just a little later in the hour. We just booked Congressman King to come on and explain to us why he thinks there needs to be something coming out of the administration. As you said, Secretary Napolitano will be on with Candy Crowley tomorrow from Washington as we continue the coverage here.

What is going on in Yemen? Federal investigators checking the passport of this man who allegedly tried to destroy a Detroit-bound flight, asking did he have an al Qaeda link in the Arabian peninsula?

Plus, leaping into action, a man who helped take down the terror suspect tells his side of the story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: The man suspected of trying to bring down Northwest flight 253 is being linked to past travels in Yemen, possible ties to al Qaeda. This isn't the first time Yemen has made headlines because of its al Qaeda connections. Yesterday's failed bombing attempt comes as Yemen's government there is intensifying military attacks against the terror network. Dozens of people were killed in an air strike on Thursday after a radical Yemeni cleric told al Jazerra's (ph) website that he helped inspire last month's massacre at Ft. Hood. And nearly half of the 210 detainees at Guantanamo are Yemeni nationals, something else to keep in mind. Remember back in 2000, October, the guided missile destroyer, "USS Cole" was in Yemen's port of Aden when a small boat pulled alongside and blew a big hole in the hull there. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed, 39 more were wounded. Yemen certainly is going to figure prominently in the investigation into flight 253. CNN international correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom has spent time in Yemen. It's been described as a borderline failed state. It certainly is unstable. Is it really that bad where al Qaeda can literally operate at will?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. It is actually worse than that. I have spoken to a lot of Yemeni experts in the past week, a lot of analysts, a lot of Yemeni officials. Right now you have several problems going on in Yemen. You have the Yemen government coming out and saying yes, al Qaeda is a big problem there. They are sending in airplanes to strike at al Qaeda targets. OK, but beyond that, you also have a separatist movement in the south that's really hard to control and you have also have these (INAUDIBLE) Shiite rebels in the north on the border with Saudi Arabia. There is a great concern by the U.S. and by regional neighbors that Yemen, this very small, very dangerous country, very poor country in a neighborhood of very rich countries, it is going to destabilize the region.

The government there is seen as ineffective. The state is seen as collapsing. They have got so many issues. In the past several months, you've seen General David Petraeus go there. You've seen John McCain and a congressional delegation go there trying to see if the U.S. can help more. They are giving money, they're giving intel, they're giving aid. It doesn't seem like it's really affecting it that much and there's still a lot more to do and people are really worried this is going to spill over into other countries. It's going to destabilize Saudi Arabia and that's just going to be a big, big problem for the region.

GRIFFIN: It almost sounds like a Somali event taking place there, but worse because of the location of where Yemen is. Tell us about where that location is in terms of navigation and also where it is in terms of a lot of the world's oil.

JAMJOOM: Yemen is just south of Saudi Arabia. It's also across from Africa and Somalia. You have a lot of Somali refugees that go to Yemen as well. There are a lot of militant camps in Yemen as well. But because it is so close to Saudi Arabia and because people are so worried about the spillover, in the past few months, you have seen Yemen al Qaeda and Saudi al Qaeda merge operations. They are now called al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Why is that a big deal? Because that group is vowing to carry out attacks against the biggest oil producer in the region. They almost assassinated the anti-terror chief of Saudi Arabia a few months ago. That sent shock waves through not only the Saudi Arabian government, but the American government and they realize now that this is a much bigger problem than they thought it was and they really need to try to get it under control. But iIt doesn't seem like it is getting any better.

GRIFFIN: I guess the big question for you and for everybody is how do you control this when you have this destabilizing parts of the country and really a government trying to hold itself together and just exist where it can.

JAMJOOM: A lot of analysts there that I speak with say they are starting to get concerned that al Qaeda and their operations there are stronger than the government, that the government is weak. The government is ineffective. That is really scaring people in the region. Beyond that, the borders in Yemen are so porous. When we started talking about the story yesterday, could this person have gone to Yemen whether he did or not? It is very easy for people to go to Yemen. It is easy to get in there. It is very easy to smuggle equipment out of there or smuggle stuff in there. It is a very dangerous place and again it really seems like it is collapsing now. It really seems like there's concern that it could destabilize the region and there could be more attacks planned not only against the allies of America in the region, but also against the United States.

GRIFFIN: How would you get in? Do you just fly in or do you go to Saudi Arabia and drive in?

JAMJOOM: You can do that. You can go, you can do the official route. You can get a visa. You can fly in. You can drive in. The borders are so porous and so open -- I mean if you are in Saudi Arabia on the border with Yemen you can pretty much walk across that border. And that's why it's so difficult to control the flow of weapons with the militants of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The country has not been able to do so. The Saudis have said for several months that they are going to build a wall. It hasn't happened. And it doesn't look like it is going to happen. I mea it's a very hard, rugged, mountainous region. It's very hard to control and it just seems to be getting worse and worse.

GRIFFIN: Mohammed Jamjoom, thank you so much for your sobering observation of Yemen as we continue to look into this man suspected of trying to bring down this Northwest flight.

He is the son of a prominent Nigerian banker and he was charged today with trying to destroy a plane as it flew into Detroit from Amsterdam. There's a picture of him. The family says this is a school picture and he's wearing a school uniform. He is now 23 years old. He was subdued by passengers and crew yesterday aboard that flight 253, taken into custody when it landed in Detroit just 20 minutes later. The FBI says the suspect was carrying a high explosive similar to nitroglycerin. It's called PETN.

In Iran, signs that the opposition has not been silenced. Riot police clashing with protesters today in the runoff to the Shiite Muslim holiday known as Ashura. The holiday is celebrated on Sunday. There are concerns there could be more trouble tomorrow. The country will also mourn a recently deceased cleric who is a vocal critic of the government and the champion of the opposition movement. Big story out of Florida. One of college's top football coaches is stepping down. Florida's Urban Meyer says the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, that's going to be his last game day as the Gators' head coach. Meyer says he has ignored his health for years but now must reconsider his priorities. Meyer's legacy is safe with two national titles in just five years at Florida.

The politics of the attempted terror attack onboard a U.S. airliner beginning to become a factor now. Congressman Peter King of New York with strong comments tonight directed at President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano -- Janet Napolitano. We're going to talk to him just ahead.

And no doubt, this investigation is going to be huge -- three continents we're talking about. On how to manage this? Well, we'll talk about that, too.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Air travelers are already feeling the fallout from yesterday's failed terror attack. If you are heading to an airport, get ready for a little longer line perhaps.

Here is what the lines at Detroit airport looked like. It's not just Detroit, travelers all over the world, really, are seeing a security crackdown.

Let's get an update on airline procedures. Our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is in Washington.

Jeanne, good evening.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the best advice, Drew, is to try and get to the airport early because things are going to be slower. There are no new restrictions being imposed on travelers at this point in time, at least. You can still bring on a carry-on bag. You can still bring on those small amounts of liquids that are put in a one quart bag.

But screening is more intense. Clearly, the screeners are taking a much careful look at who is getting onboard and what they are carrying onboard a plane. In addition, we know that a security directive has been issued for international flights. This advises that during the last hour of flight, no one should be allowed out of their seat. They should be -- they should have their seat belt on. Also, pillows, blankets, carry ones -- all have to be stowed overhead. They cannot be in passengers' laps at that point in time.

Now, more changes may come down the road as they learn more about this plot, as they learn more about the specific device here. But at this point in time, that's the way it stands.

Complicated, of course, by the fact that this is Christmas. Airports are very crowded. People have a lot of winter outer wear that they're dealing with when they get to the checkpoint. Also, people may have gotten Christmas gifts, which include electronics, and those could be on their carry-ons, making the screening process that much slower.

The advice from the TSA is to get there early. You should also remember to pack your carry-on in layers, if you possibly can, separating heavy items and electronics from your clothes. In addition, you know, be ready to remove your liquids and the one quart bag, have your I.D. ready. Those are the sorts of things that could help ease the situation just a little bit -- Drew.

GRIFFIN: Jeanne, thanks.

Let's turn to politics now, because two of these stories are beginning to collide. The White House is calling this an attempted act of terrorism but the president is on vacation. Some lawmakers say they want answers from the commander-in-chief, not just press releases.

One of the critics is joining us now, Congressman Peter King, Republican from New York, the ranking minority member on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Congressman, you know what you're talking about when you're talking about security issues. Why is it important for us to see or hear from the administration?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK (via telephone): Drew, this came close to being one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our country. If we had lost much 300 people on Christmas Day, this would have been remembered forevermore as the Christmas Day massacre. We avoided by luck and because of a number of very courageous passengers.

This was an assault on the United State and it is important at a time like this that the president of the United States or someone in the administration with stature step forward, whether it would be the vice president or the secretary of homeland security. But basically, there is no face of the administration on this issue.

And me, I just think of health care and global warming and some of the other issues where there's always somebody from the administration out there talking. And I'm not saying to grandstand it, I'm saying to be out there and just be a calm and reassuring voice for the country and for the world.

Whether it was President Bush or President Clinton or President Reagan, at times like this, the country looks for a leader. And I just feel that this administration is much more comfortable in talking about issues other than terrorism.

GRIFFIN: Congressman, we've heard from Ed Henry, who got a response from the administration, saying, you know, this just not is -- not the president's style. He'd rather let the investigators do the investigating and tell this story.

You seem to say it goes beyond just a terror investigation here.

KING: Yes, it does. Let me make it clear, from what I know, I agree with what the administration is doing as far as their policies, as far increasing the security, and as far as doing all they can to find out who was behind it and know what the facts are.

I'm saying, now, there's more to being a president and more to being an administration than just getting -- just having the technical work done. It's important to reassure the country, to show leadership, to show -- you know, to give a sense of confidence to the country. This is an attack on the country. And as commander-in-chief, I believe the president should be there or the secretary of homeland security or his homeland security adviser in the White House. And again, just to -- as a sign of strength for the country, especially, since in virtually every other issue, there's almost a race to the microphone.

GRIFFIN: I can almost hear the critics coming after you, saying you're trying to turn this into a political issue. But let me read what you wrote earlier today. You said, "They," meaning, the administration, "don't feel as comfortable talking about terror as they do global warming and health care." You are almost saying -- if I'm reading this correctly -- that this is a deliberate political move by the administration not to talk about terror.

KING: Yes. I -- first of all, they started off the first several months of the Obama administration refusing to use the word terrorism. Janet Napolitano said it would no longer be in the vocabulary of the Department of Homeland Security because they thought that it connoted fear. And Secretary Clinton is saying that the policy of the administration was not to talk about terrorism. Even when the president gave his speech at West Point about the troops going to Afghanistan, he didn't use the word terrorism. He spoke of extremism.

So, no, I don't think they are comfortable. And having said, let me make it clear, I think they are doing the right thing as far as their policies. Since this attack occurred, the FBI and, as far as I can tell, Homeland Security and all the agencies of the United States government are doing the right job.

But the president above all, who is a great communicator, should realize what President Reagan always did. The country looks for a voice of strength and reassurance, especially with the president being in Hawaii at a time like this.

Listen, think of all the criticism President Bush took because it took him several days to get down to New Orleans after Katrina. So, people do look for leadership in their president.

GRIFFIN: All right. Congressman King -- Representative Peter King out of New York, we'll see if they take up your advice. Thank you, sir, for joining us tonight.

KING: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

GRIFFIN: You bet.

Stay with CNN around the clock for the latest on the terror investigation.

Coming up tomorrow morning on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," one of those administration officials, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, she will be on at 9:00 a.m. with Candy Crowley.

Well, is there an al Qaeda connection? That's what investigators want to know. We're going to delve into that -- coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: One of the big questions from Flight 253 is: could this suspect be linked to al Qaeda?

Let's go back to London and bring in senior international correspondent Nic Robertson.

And, Nic, let's be honest -- every terrorist that comes along, you know, wants to be connected with al Qaeda. It's almost like having a trophy on the wall. How are they going to know for sure if this guy has ties to an al Qaeda organization?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Or even, I think, another question we can ask, Drew: is how important is it that he has those ties? In one sense, yes, it may be important, and traditionally, it might be as important that he goes to Pakistan to get training.

But if he's bought on to the al Qaeda ideology and he's doing what these, you know, al Qaeda the type of attacks, that they want -- using the type of explosives that they want.

And we know Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, in a big Internet sort of Web forum chat taking questions, this is what was being indicated by him, that it isn't necessary to join al Qaeda and be loyal to them. He said, "You know, you get our ideology. You know what it is. And the way to implement our ideology, bomb-making, et cetera, all that information is out on the Internet as well. So, you don't need to be part of us."

I'm joined here by terrorism expert Paul Cruickshank.

I mean, Paul, is it important these days you reckon to be part of al Qaeda to do these attacks?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERROR ANALYST: Well, you're absolutely right, Nic, that it doesn't matter too much because, you know, everybody would have potentially being killed on this airplane, everybody on the ground also. There'd be a lot of more victims on the ground. So, it wouldn't matter much for them.

But this attack -- this attempted attack does have a lot of the hallmarks of al Qaeda. They have an obsession over the years of attacking aviation. And we saw on the "Operation Bojinka," which is this plot in '95 to attack 12 American airliners over the Pacific. That was a plot linked to al Qaeda, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 9/11; obviously, Richard Reid, in 2006, in the summer, an airline plot involving liquid explosives.

Now, this plot has a lot of similarities to Operation Bojinka on '95 because it's the same sort of explosive related to nitroglycerin that being used. They were seeing some indications that this could be al Qaeda. He's claiming that he's part of al Qaeda in Yemen, Nic.

ROBERTSON: Yes. I mean, Drew, when you look at this, as Paul says, it's got all the characteristics of al Qaeda. And he's claimed that he's been sent by al Qaeda and he's been told what to do with these explosives. But it's the al Qaeda ideology, just putting terror in people's minds, around the world wherever, attacking the United States.

But to do it on Christmas Day, I mean, this just -- whether it was going to be successful or not for al Qaeda, and whether or not he'd signed up to them, whether or not he'd sign a loyalty or whatever, it doesn't matter because this for them is a tick in the good box. We know that they're degraded -- their capabilities are degraded, but their idea is to strike terror. And I think that's what we're seeing here, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And, gentlemen, let me just throw this question out to you because it's something that is so hard for a rationale thinker to understand. This suspect apparently had everything to live for. He had a supportive family that sent him to college. He had a very good education. And somehow or another, he gets brainwashed into this al Qaeda or al Qaeda-esque idea of -- I mean, for lack of a better term, it's bloodthirstiness for no real gain of anything other than to just strike terror in people.

I have no idea what al Qaeda's goal is in any of this garbage. How do you stop that kind of thing when you're really fighting a battle over the minds of these young men?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, Drew, these people have become very politicized. They bought into al Qaeda's ideology.

We've seen very educated people repeatedly joined al Qaeda's ranks. Mohamed Atta with the 9/11 attacks. He was a student at Hamburg University. Omar Sheikh, a guy who orchestrated the murder of Daniel Pearl, was at LSE.

So, we've seen very educated people join al Qaeda. They've become convinced in almost every case that the West, the United States, is at war with Islam and that they need to fight back. They just -- are brainwashed into thinking that, Drew.

ROBERTSON: So, what, Drew -- I mean, what you're beginning to see emerging here in Britain and in the United States is a realization within the broad mainstream, the massive part, if you will, of Islam that is peaceful. People, parents that are concerned about their kids, community leaders that are concerned about their communities. In Britain, you hear students who come out on the streets and demonstrate against the radical Islamic groups, moderate Muslims, if you will, coming out now and demonstrating against the radicals.

And what they're trying to do is put out the real ideology of Islam, not this radical fire brand version. And they are talking about starting up Internet sites to fight this on the Web. They are talking about coming out and blocking -- as we've seen here in Britain -- demonstrations by radical groups that just want to, you know, radicalize people, stir up emotions.

So, that is one way that it can be tackled. But, of course, it's much more than that.

Experts -- terror experts will say what we need is an integrated social mechanism. Too often, it is law enforcement or security officials that are dealing with Muslim communities over these issues. There needs to be much better integration between Muslim communities and sort of civic and civil level as well to sort of take away the security stigma. And, Paul, you are seeing this...

(CROSSTALK)

CRUICKSHANK: Well, the stakes are very, very high right now, Nic, because in the United States, you'll seeing more radicalization. The Internet is playing a big role. More Americans are going to Pakistan; more are being trained by al Qaeda. The stakes are incredibly high.

The Muslim community is starting to stand up and continuing to stand up in the United States. They already have done so here in Britain. And that's very vital, because you got to win the hearts and minds of these young Muslims.

ROBERTSON: And it is as simple as this, Drew, is not to allow the radicals to win the message. And that's beginning to concern a lot of Muslims everywhere right now.

GRIFFIN: Right. Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank, both with us tonight in London -- gentlemen, thank you. We'll be looking for your coverage in the coming days as this investigation expands out now across three different continents.

And coming up, we're going to ask exactly: how do you manage a global investigation? Former homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, joins us right now. I thought we were going to a break.

But we are going to a break. Fran, hold on, OK? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: The suspect's trail crosses three continents and thousands of miles and the investigation will test cooperation between authorities in several countries.

Fran Townsend is a CNN national security contributor, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, joining us from Washington.

And one of the main countries, Fran, that we've been talking about is Yemen, and whether or not we have enough cooperation, or whether Yemen can actually help in this investigation given what we hear is a pretty unstable situation in that country already.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: It is very unstable. And one of your earlier guests was talking about the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Remember, that's border that was crossed with guns to attack our consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, several years ago. And recently, an individual crossed that border and attempted to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the head of their internal security service.

And so, there's a lot of instability. There's a real question about capability on the part of Yemen to battle these terrorist threats.

There have been numerous attacks on our embassy and our personnel there.

And so, this will be a real challenge. If Yemen has the will to cooperate, they can provide tremendous insight, the sorts of things we need to know.

Look, the suspect in this case didn't get PETN on his own. He didn't know to book row 19 on his own. He didn't know to assemble the device and all its component pieces in the bathroom and then return to his seat and cover himself with a blanket in order to take -- do the detonation.

And so, there's an awful lot about this that suggests he had help. He had some sort of training. The authorities in Yemen are in a real position to help us put the pieces -- those pieces of the puzzle together so we better understand how this happened.

GRIFFIN: And, Fran, why is it important to learn who helped him? And what happens when we find out who did?

TOWNSEND: Well, for one thing, it allows you then to continue to build your picture of the web. You know, we hear a lot about connecting the dots -- well, once you understand who he was affiliated with and who helped him, you put more dots on the page, that you can then understand -- is this part of a larger network in the region and around the world? And where else is it connected? Are there connections in London? Nic Robertson was just reporting from there.

Are there connections in other places like Saudi Arabia or throughout the region? And those are the -- why did he pick Detroit? Was there some significance to that? Or is there a cell there?

You can be sure the FBI and federal officials are looking at all of those questions now. It just becomes easier to find the answers if you've got the cooperation of the government of Yemen.

GRIFFIN: Let me ask you a big picture question in this war on terror. And I call it a war on terror because that's what I believe it really is. In this war on terror, are we winning it, Fran? Are we losing it?

It just seems like these guys are like cockroaches. You put a little bug spray one place, and they crawl over to some other hole, Yemen or wherever, and they breed and come back and strike you again. And I don't get a sense or a handle on whether or not this world that we're living in is winning over this fight against these bloodthirsty terrorists. TOWNSEND: Drew, as you might imagine, I agree with you. It is a war on terrorism. And, you know, it's a -- I used to think to myself when I was in the White House, it's a daily fight. And every day that there's not an attack, you feel like that's a win. But it's hard to say whether or not you are winning or losing on a long-term basis.

We're making tremendous progress. And I have to give the administration, both this administration and the prior administration, credit there.

We now have moderate Muslims. We have families who are reporting their sons who are being recruited and brainwashed into this, whether that is in northern Virginia, the case of five Pakistani young men who went missing and their parents reported them; or the suspect in this case whose father reported in Nigeria to have reported his son becoming radicalized. And so, those are all good signs that the government, the forces of good, are winning this fight.

But it's a long-term battle. We've heard the term "the long war." Make no mistake about it, this -- al Qaeda and extremists think in terms of millennia, they think in terms of hundreds of years. We need to understand this is a long-term battle where we not only have to win sort of the fight, the kinetic fight, that you know, stop the next attack, but we have to win the battle for hearts and minds.

And I do think when you see parents reporting the radicalization of their sons, that's part of winning in the long-term the battle for hearts and minds.

GRIFFIN: And you mention, that's a strategy not only -- it's being encouraged, you said, in Saudi Arabia. There's actually a program to do that.

TOWNSEND: That's exactly right. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the individual who heads their internal security service who was the target of an assassination attempt, does have a program where he reaches out to families and encourages them to call him directly and to report to the Mabahith, internal security service, sons that go missing, sons that seem to be radicalized. And so that the service then knows to look for them, to help these families, to bring their sons back, and to basically deprogram them.

GRIFFIN: All right. Fran Townsend joining us from Washington, D.C., tonight. Ending, I must say, Fran, on a positive note for our report, although mildly positive on this night when we have seen this averted terrorist attack that certainly could have brought disaster on Christmas Day here in the U.S. Thank you, Fran.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

GRIFFIN: Terror in the skies -- how did the alleged attacker get through security? And what is being done to make sure it does not happen again? A special "LARRY KING LIVE" begins right now.

I'm Drew Griffin. I will see you back with a full report right back here in an hour. Right now, let's go to Larry King. Larry, I don't know where you are? Los Angeles, I assume.