What we have here, it seems, is a failure to communicate

A federal grand jury has indicted Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on charges that he tried to blow up Detroit-bound Flight 253. There are six counts against the 23-year-old Nigerian, the most serious being the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which potentially carries a life sentence. The terrorist group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed responsibility for the attack; the AQAP said that Abdulmutallab coordinated with group members.

American authorities knew for some time of the terrorist ties of a Nigerian man linked to Al-Qaida who tried to blow up a passenger jet before it landed in Detroit.

The son of a prominent Nigerian is charged with trying to destroy a transatlantic jet on Christmas Day. The suspect, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, say authorities, attempted to detonate explosives that had been sewn into his underpants and to destroy a Northwest Airlines passenger jet from Amsterdam as it landed in Detroit.

The attempt has opened up another chapter in airborne terrorist threats. The episode also exposed embarrassing deficiencies to communicate intelligence among agencies, leading to what President Obama has since called a “systemic failure.”

Indeed. There were more red flags being waved in this episode than at a parade in Beijing.

The accused man has since reportedly informed investigators that he was trained and equipped in Yemen by a group affiliated with Al-Qaida. The unclassified report just released by the Obama Administration has acknowledged that intelligence officials knew that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) wanted to attack the U.S. The British home secretary has noted the Nigerian had been placed on a U.K. watch list and was barred from entering Britain in 2009. Such information is routinely shared with U.S. authorities

The father of the accused had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn officials that his son was becoming radicalized. It turned out that Nigerian officials brought the father directly to the CIA station chief in Abuja on Nov. 19. The suspect was placed on a watch list maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. However Abdulmutallab’s visa to the U.S. wasn’t revoked, nor was he placed on the “no-fly” list.

There were plenty of other reasons, made especially clear in hindsight, to be suspicious: The suspect apparently paid cash, bought a one-way ticket and had no checked luggage for what was supposed to be an extended stay.

Abdulmutallab has since been charged with trying to destroy an aircraft “with a weapon of mass destruction,” He has reportedly admitted that his device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions on its use. A so-called weapon of mass destruction need not be a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon; it is defined as such because of its potential effects. Had the Detroit-bound aircraft blown up, the casualties in the air and on the ground might have have exceeded the total during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


Failure to Connect the Dots

Much of the U.S. embarrassment stems from the fact that intelligence reporting in December about possible terrorist plots was not quickly shared quickly among relevant agencies, resulting in a tangled web of missed opportunities. The intelligence received at the time was interpreted as a garbled stream of information about a possible holiday-period plot against the U.S, originating in Pakistan. The State Dept. said that warnings about Abdulmutallab were made to U.S. counterterrorist agencies on November 20.

According to a necessarily anonymous intelligence official, if the “bits and pieces” of information been properly knitted together, the alleged attacker could have been placed on the no-fly list. “As everybody knows, terrorists often speak in coded language, especially when they think their communications might be intercepted… there were, to put it mildly, virtually no details at all. That happens.”

John Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism remarked in early January: “There was no piece of intelligence that said, ‘This guy’s a terrorist. He’s going to get on a plane.’ No, not whatsoever.”

That is no doubt true. Still, as early as August, telephone intercepts alerted the CIA that someone called “the Nigerian” was involved in a planned attack. In November, the suspect’s father contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn officials about his son’s radical associations and noted that he had disappeared. As noted, the Border Agency in the U.K. rejected the suspect’s visa request to visit in May 2009. Abdulmutallab traveled from Lagos to Amsterdam to Detroit; by the time he reached Amsterdam, he had apparently been flagged in the U.S. consular database as being on the terrorist watch list.

And the long trail doesn’t end there. Reports have emerged of a high-level intelligence briefing in October 2009 warning of a new Al-Qaida tactic of hiding a bomb in an attacker’s underwear. A similar bomb had already been employed in August 2009, when there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt by an AQAP terrorist against Saudi Arabia’s director of counterterrorism, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Some American intelligence sources now believe that both this device and the Christmas Day explosive system were built by the same bomb-maker. Saudi officials initially thought the bomb had been secreted in the attacker’s anal cavity, as reported in Newsweek, but later determined it had likely been sewn into his underwear.

The failure to communicate could be caused by the culture and mentality of bureaucratic structures. Such bodies tend to breed a lack of what has been called lateral thinking. Bureaucracies are often unfriendly to intuitive, instinctive judgments. Officials find themselves embedded in static and inflexible working practices, where everything seems to take place behind closed doors.

There is no doubt that the complexities of databases and the number of agencies potentially involved also make it hard to see the forest for the trees. Some of the current calls for an internationally shared watch list available to embassy staff, immigration officials, border police and airport security staff would require new ways of information-sharing across borders.


The Explosive Device

Because the sewn-in device that was devised to take down the plane near Detroit contained pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a proven high-explosive, authorities concluded that it had likely been made by an accomplice. PETN is a component of Semtex, which has long been the favorite explosive of terrorists, most notably the IRA. It is is not only stable and very powerful in small amounts, but is also largely undetectable by most scanning machines currently in service.

This was the same explosive carried by the so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, an admitted Al-Qaida member who tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami shortly before Christmas in 2001.

The syringe recovered from the Nigerian suspect contained a glycol-based liquid explosive intended as a detonator, according to U.S. authorities. It failed to cause an explosion.

Only five days later in Mogadishu, there was an arrest of a Somali who allegedly attempted to carry a similar combination of chemicals, liquid and a syringe onto a flight bound for Djibouti and Dubai. Whether that attempt was connected to the Christmas Day bomber or a copycat incident, it heightened the state of security at airports around the world. The seizure of an intact device will be of great value for U.S. investigators investigating links between the two attempted attacks and a possible Al-Qaida command structure in Somalia and Yemen.


Problems with Whole-Body Scanning

Following the Christmas Day attempt by the “undie bomber,” the alarm went out for airports to speed up the installation of whole-body scanners to detect hidden materials on passengers. Those flying into the United States from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen will undergo intensive screening. At this point, the regulations do not apply to the U.K. and other European countries with a jihadi presence.

This reaction is akin to panicked response following the arrest in August 2006 of a group of British Muslim extremists who were convicted in 2009. They were charged with trying to smuggle liquid explosives on board 10 transatlantic aircraft. Controls were instantly imposed on the size of liquid bottles passengers were allowed to carry on board aircraft, restrictions that have remained in force to date.

Whole-body scanners have been tested at several airports. However, they do not reveal all forms of explosives and concealed packages, or certain chemicals or light plastics, or show under clothing or inside the body.Critics have raised concerns about what they call an unacceptable intrusion of passenger privacy; others have questioned whether the radiation the scanners emit is harmful.

Scanner technologies, such as Raman spectroscopy, can detect liquids and other novel substances. Yet, these are expensive. Whole-body X-ray scanners will pick up anything carried internally or externally, but may be impractical for mass screening at airports.

Meanwhile, there is available what might well be more effective screening method: nontechnological passenger profiling. Travelers can be analysed according to their appearance, behavior, itinerary and passport (there were several anomalies with the Nigerian suspect). Such tactics are used in Israeli airports, where inspectors often pay more attention to the passengers than to the smuggling of potential weapons. Sticking points elsewhere, however, include the legal liabilities of such tactics and political correctness, no small matter in the U.S.

Such profiling, more targeted and potentially more effective, requires highly trained individuals to make risk assessments of passengers as they arrive at the airport and determine which technology should be used for screening. Also vital is the integrity of the airport employees and authorities, as attested by the by the Somali bomb suspect who tried to bribe the team that detained him.
“It’s essential that we diagnose the problems quickly,” said President Obama. Unfortunately, that isn’t the first time that has been noted.

Author: Andy Oppenheimer

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