Friday, January 08, 2010

Terrorism: Why Al Qaeda targeted Detroit flight


In my earlier writings on the attempt by a Nigerian student trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen to blow up a North-West Airlines aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25,2009, as it was coming in to land at Detroit, I had posed the question as to why Al Qaeda targeted this particular flight to Detroit? Did Detroit have any special significance for Al Qaeda? I had said that I was not in a position to answer this question.

2, Now, I think I can tentatively, after reading President Barack Obama's address to his people on the results of the in-house review of why the US counter-terrorism community reorganised in 2004 failed to prevent this attack. My answer is: While the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam had at some gates the required equipment with technology capable of detecting explosives concealed inside an underwear, the gate from which the North-West Airlines flight to Detroit took off did not have this equipment and technology.

3. This admission has not been made by Obama in such categorical terms as I have used, but it is obvious between the lines in the following sentence in his address to his people: "But a metal detector can't detect the kind of explosives that were sewn into his clothes. As Secretary Napolitano will explain, the screening technologies that might have detected these explosives are in use at the Amsterdam airport but not at the specific checkpoints that he passed through."

4.Were the North-West Airlines flights to Detroit taking off from the same gate every day which does not have the equipment with the technology to detect explosives concealed inside one's underwear? Or did only the flight on December 25 take off from that gate? If they were taking off from that gate every day, there is a strong likelihood that Al Qaeda knew about it in advance either through the observation of its sources transiting Schiphol or through moles and that was why it directed him to take this particular flight.

5. Al Qaeda chose the Nigerian for the attempted attack because it knew he had a valid US visa. The US Government failed to thwart the attempt because it did not know that the Nigerian student about whom his own father had cautioned the US Embassy in Nigeria held a valid visa for travel to the US. This was because the US Embassy in Nigeria in its report to the State Department on the father's warning had spelt the student's name differently from the spelling in his passport on which the visa was issued by the US Embassy in London in June,2008.Neither the human analysts in the US counter-terrorism agencies in Washington DC nor their computers connected the name as it had figured in the report of the US Ambassador in Nigeria and as it had figured in the list of persons for whom a visa was issued by the US Embassy in London.

6.An important lesson coming out of the enquiry: Data bases are important in counter-terrorism. Easy access to the databases to those dealing with counter-terrorism is equally important. Both these requirements were met in the case of the Nigerian student, but no action was taken to thwart the attempt because those having access to the databases did not make proper use of them. The information about the student conveyed by the Ambassador in Nigeria was not sufficient to warrant his black-listing and being included in the no-fly list, but there was other adverse information about him available in other databases. The bits and pieces of adverse information about him available in different databases were not brought together in an integrated manner on a single piece of paper. Had this been done, immediate action might have been taken to cancel his visa and prevent him from boarding the plane.

7. Obama's address and the in-house review do not call for any change in the counter-terrorism structure as it was set up in 2004. They have called for modifications and improvements in the way the human and technical elements in this structure operate.

8. The BBC's correspondent in North Africa has come out with an interesting comment on the brave attempt made by Obama to prevent any serious damage to his administration and to his own reputation as a result of the Christmas Day failure, which he has compared to the Bay of Pigs failure of John F.Kennedy.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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