Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Terrorism: Flight 253 - What we have here is a failure to communicate


Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

The greeter at a “family friendly” restaurant often hands over a sheet of printed paper and a set of returnable crayons to the younger members of a party arriving for a meal. The paper contains word games and other puzzles that can protect the young ones against boredom while adults pore over their menus as if their lives depended on their selections. Almost invariably, the puzzles include a “connect the dots” exercise. Five and six-year-olds are said to revel in this, connecting the dots that create an image of, most often, an animal.

Connecting the dots -– in a different context and at another level of thinking -- is precisely what the brightest and best of the U.S. government’s security and intelligence apparatus could not do in the months leading up to what could have been a horrendous Christmas Day disaster (2009).


For the benefit of those who might have forgotten: On Dec. 25, 2009, a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, travelling on Northwest Airline Flight 253 from Amsterdam’s Schipol airport to Detroit, Michigan attempted to detonate an explosive device which would have destroyed the aircraft and possibly killed all 279 passengers and 11 crew members on board.

Abdulmutallab, or Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) which has claimed credit for the attempted attack, could have been technologically challenged. For whatever reason, the bomb did not explode but ignited instead, injuring Abdulmutallab and two more passengers.

The flight crew, supported by some passengers, subdued Abdulmutallab, and held him immobile until the plane landed in Detroit where he was hand over to Customs and Border Protection officers.

Subsequently, FBI agent Theodore James Peiseg presented a criminal complaint to the District Court of Eastern Michigan alleging that Abdulmutallab willfully attempted to destroy an aircraft, and placed a destructive device on that aircraft.

The incident was a grim reminder to the U.S. -- and, indeed, to others -- that danger continuously lurks.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the abortive bomb attack is that, as disclosed by the White House, is that sufficient information was available to identify Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP and prevent him from boarding flight 253.

Unfortunately, although the data that could have helped to identify Abdulmutallab and his potential involvement in a bomb attack was available “within the system,” these various pieces of information were not drawn together and analysed as a composite.

President Obama said in a televised broadcast on Jan. 5: “The bottom line is this. The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the ‘no fly’ list.

“In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.”


What are the dots that the experts could not connect? Here are the best known of them:

-- AQAP had previously attempted to use explosives sewn into a suicide bomber’s clothing as an assassination device.

-- Some reports had indicated that AQAP was planning an attack on the U.S. using the services of a Nigerian.

-- Abdulmuttallab is a Nigerian who had been issued a multiple entry visa by the U.S. but misspelling of his name initially made the State Department believe that he did not possess a valid U.S. visa.

-- In November 2009, Abdulmutallab’s father, a former banker, met officials of the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria and shared with them his concerns that his son who had planned to travel to Yemen might have “come under the influence of unidentified extremists.”

-- The father’s information that the son had turned into an extremist was not connected with the son’s possession of an entry visa for the U.S.

-- Abdulmutallab’s name was on TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) but security and intelligence staff did not “search all available databases to uncover additional derogatory information that could have been correlated with Abdulmutallab.” Without such information, his name could not be added to the ‘no fly’ list.

-- Information technology within the counterterrorism community “did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information.”

-- Abdulmutallab paid some $3000 in cash for his ticket, did not check any baggage, and carried no outerwear although his stated destination was Detroit in the cold month of December.

-- Analysts highlighted the evolving “strategic threat” AQAP posed to the West and the U.S. in particular, but the counteterrorism community “failed to follow-up further on this ‘strategic warning’ to further identify and correlate critical indicators of AQAP’s threat to the U.S.”


In an interview with the newspaper “USA Today,” Gen. Jim Jones, a former commander of the Marine Corps and currently Obama’s National Security Adviser, said that the public would “feel a certain shock” when they read an account of the missed clues that, if recognized and integrated, could have prevented the alleged Christmas Day bomber from boarding Flight 253 with a lethal “dose” of “pentaerythritol tetranitrate” or PETN hidden in his underpants.

Jones was right. The public was, indeed, shocked, and bewildered. The country’s first line of defence had so much information on the alleged bomber and allowed all that to pass by?

The public could be excused for wondering whether the security and intelligence apparatus had been competing to outdo the “Keystone Cops” and the recruits in “Police Academy.”

When Flight 253 was in flight, an intelligence officer on the ground examined the manifest, which is available only after a flight has taken off, felt that there were many suspicious circumstances about Abdulmutallab, and marked him down for additional or special questioning when the flight landed in Detroit.

This could go down in history as the world’s best known unintended definition of optimism. If Abdulmutallab’s plans had succeeded, there would not have even been a body to examine in Detroit let alone a living being to question.

The authorities, when they suspected that the flight had a potential terrorist on board, took a nonchalant attitude towards the grim possibilities rather than alert the captain and crew, suggest that the suspected terrorist be overpowered and made immobile, as he was, eventually, and direct the captain to land at the closest airport.


Obama, as commander-in-chief, has taken responsibility for the errors that prevented the security and intelligence system from identifying the threat that Abdulmutallab posed and preventing him from getting on board a flight into the U.S.

The president in his public statements was at pains to point out that what caused the problem was a “systemic failure” and not to point the finger at individuals or specific government departments.

The “buck stops with me,” he said, echoing President Truman’s dramatic phrase. Every president since Truman is said to have repeated the Trumanism at least once.

In Obama’s case, although he was said to be livid about the lapses, he was making a deliberate effort not to demoralize security and intelligence personnel some of whose colleagues have died while attempting to protect the U.S. Whether “heads will roll” later is something to be watched.

Obama has, as well, instructed several Cabinet secretaries (ministers) and heads of agencies to strengthen national security immediately. Such actions, he said, “are required to ensure that “standards, practices and business process that have been in place since the aftermath of 9/11 are appropriately robust.”

He has been attacked from the left for supporting forms of enhanced airport security that will be an “intrusion of privacy.” He has been attacked from the right by critics whose view appears to be that the best way to deal with a suspected terrorist is to waterboard him, then lock him up in a solitary confinement cell and throw away the key.

Both forms of attack will undoubtedly continue, which is natural in any society that encourages dissent and protects it by law. That is what makes the task of all those connected with national security particularly difficult.

To concede the point made by critics on the left and backtrack on “new and improved” security screenings and other defensive measures at airports would be a dereliction of responsibility. If there should be a “next time” the absence of such measures will be roundly condemned.

What is required is to ensure through scientific testing and, in some cases, even by “trial and error,” that the new measures actually work. What is equally important is that they should be deployed uniformly and not on the basis of unwarranted profiling.

As for the argument, whether it be made openly or by innuendo, that the U.S. should throw its values out of the window and turn national security arrangements into instruments of fear, prejudice and anger, Obama deserves the last word in rebuttal.

His view? “We will strengthen our defences, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. “ Time will tell.

The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is on the IDN editorial board.

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