In a taped message last month, Osama bin Laden endorsed the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and referred to the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as "heroic." But even with bin Laden's endorsement, were Abdulmutallab's actions an al Qaeda-directed plot? If so, what was al Qaeda's exact involvement? What, if anything, does an association with al Qaeda mean today?
The term "al Qaeda affiliate" has been lobbed not just at Abdulmutallab--who was trained in Yemen by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula--but at almost every individual linked to the terrorist plots that have unfolded in the past year. Tarek Mehanna, a Boston pharmacology student, studied jihad over the Internet and then tried and failed to contact al Qaeda operatives in Iraq; he was termed an al Qaeda affiliate. So too was the dodgy Detroit imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, who sought to create a separate state ruled by sharia law, but was eventually killed in an FBI shootout before he reached his goal. Najibullah Zazi and his associates, who plotted an attack on New York City, were described as being connected to al Qaeda, as was Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter.