The scale of the lapses in security when Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear is becoming clear
The scale of the lapses in security on Christmas Day – when a 23 year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to detonate a quantity of PETN high-explosives sewn into his underwear while on Northwestern Flight 253 as it approached Detroit carrying 290 passengers and crew – is becoming clear.
Abdulmutallab had joined the flight in Amsterdam, having flown in on a connecting flight from Lagos on Christmas Eve, using a multiple entry visa granted in June 2008, with a one-way ticket bought in Accra for $2,831 in cash. Although he was not scheduled to return for a fortnight, he did not check in any bags.
Under normal circumstances the Department of Homeland Security (DHL) would have been alerted to the cash purchase, considered a suspicious transaction, and the failure to travel with any luggage. DHS should also have been alerted by the U.S. inter-agency National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) that the CIA station in Abuja had been warned by Abdulmutallab’s father Umaru Mutallab, in an interview held at his request in the embassy on 19 November that his son, currently in the Yemen attending a three-month Arabic language course, had been radicalized.
Considering that the CIA’s informant was a wealthy retired banker and former government minister, it is likely that the two CIA officers who received his tip took it seriously, and that the resulting report was marked as credible as it was passed first to headquarters at Langley, and then to the NCTC down the road in McLean, Virginia.
The DHS could not be expected to know that the troubled young Abdulmutallab had been declined a visa six months earlier by the British because his application had mentioned a bogus language college that had been blacklisted by the UK Border Agency.
Nor could the DHS have known that MI5 had monitored several contacts between Abdulmutallab and suspect radicals while he had lived in London between 2005 and 2008 studying on an undergraduate engineering course at University College, London.
Although MI5 had registered Abdulmutallab’s existence because of his very overt links to known extremists, there was no evidence to suggest he had crossed the line and become an alleged terrorist. The Security Service is obliged, because of limited resources, to prioritize its targets, and during the period he was in London there was nothing to justify placing him under surveillance.
In the United States, however, the worrying information from the CIA should have been entered on the vast Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) which already listed Abdulmutallab, and the narrower Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). Within the TSDB are two sub-categories, including one which is often referred to as the “no-fly list” containing 3,400 names of individuals who simply cannot get on a plane for the US, even if they hold a valid visa. Responsibility for nominating transfers from the huge TIDE to the TSBD rests with the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center.
Ideally, Abdulmutallab’s visa, issued in June 2008, should have been rescinded, and his name transferred from the TIDE to the TSDB’s “no-fly list”, but neither happened. Thus there were apparently three distinct failings. Firstly, there was the front-line lapse at Lagos and again at Schipol when the passenger was not identified as a suspicious traveler. Secondly, there was the DHS’s failure to grasp the CIA’s warning, and thirdly there was the FBI’s omission of moving his name from the TIDE to the TSDB.
It must be recognized, of course, that a distinction is made between a “watch-list” which requires reporting of a particular individual’s movements, and will have an intelligence value but not tip off the target, and a no-fly list that actively excludes a suspect from the aircraft. We now know that Abdulmutallab’s name was on the TIDE, although the reason for his listing, nor the date of the entry, has not been disclosed.
To compound these blunders, it is reported that the NSA’s monitoring of Al-Qaida communications within the Yemen suggested that an unidentified Nigerian had been recruited for a terrorist attack on “American interests”, a term that is not geographically limited.
Sana’a is considered a high priority for the NSA because two of the jihadists responsible for the attack in October 2000 on the USS Cole, Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi and Fahad Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, live there. So does Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric who was mentoring by email Major Nidal Hasan who went on a murderous rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
Two other local residents are also of interest. A Saudi national, Said Ali al-Shihri, was released from Guantanamo in December 2007 after having spent six years as a detainee. Another is Nasir al-Wahayshi, formerly Osama bin Laden’s secretary, who had escaped from a Yemeni prison and is a fugitive. According to the US Department of Defense, 61 of the 510 prisoners released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorism.
All these issues were expected to be addressed by the hapless DHS Secretary Janet Neapolitano who initially had claimed that nothing had gone wrong before, during or after the Detroit incident, asserting “the system worked as it should.” This version was swifty contradicted by President Barack Obama who referred to systemic and human failings, but avoided any explanation, in the published version of his review, of precisely what had happened.
It may be that the classified annex contains some trenchant criticisms, but the two documents released by the White House on 7 January are banale and complacent. Leaving the key questions unanswered. The reports reveal that Abdulmutallab’s name was on the TIDE, but not on the TSDB. Incredibly, the CIA’s tip was considered by the FBI to be insufficient to move him onto the TSDB.
But even more unbelievably, the FBI never realized that Abdulmutallab was in possession of a valid visa because someone had misspelled his name!
If all this was bad enough, the NCTC did not bother to run Abdulmutallab’s details through all the other databases available to it. If the computer search had been conducted properly, it is conceded that the suspect would have gone straight onto the TSDB’s no-fly list. To add insult to injury, the NCTC’s director continued with his skiing vacation on Christmas Day, after he had been alerted to the incident.
The unpalatable truth is that the much-vaunted full body scanners now being rushed into airports probably would not have detected the bomber’s PETN explosives or his chemical detonator, held in a syringe, whereas almost any profiling, assessing gender, age, past travel patterns and behaviour, would have flagging Abdulmutallab as a suspect requiring further scrutiny, if not a full pat-down.
Perhaps most insulting of all is Gordon Brown’s remark that the incident was “a wake-up call”, which rather implies that someone, perhaps himself, had been asleep and in being so had put hundreds of lives in jeopardy.