By Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
The failed Christmas bombing plot has been called, by everyone up to President Obama, a massive failure of the intelligence and targeting systems that are supposed to identify would-be terrorists before they come so close to succeeding. But the more we have learned about what the government knew before the attacks, the more it looks like this was instead a very near miss by agencies that were doing most of the right things.
Consider the alternative. What if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been wholly unknown to the U.S. government? We would be faced with a dangerous new type of threat – an individual from a country that was not seen as a likely source of terrorist threats who had managed to escape notice by U.S. or allied intelligence. That would have been a truly damning condemnation of the intelligence community and other agencies with a counterterrorism mission, and it would have left the Obama administration floundering for a response.
But look at what the intelligence community knew about Abdulmutallab. Here was an individual from a country that had been far down the list of U.S. terrorism concerns and who had spent much of his life in London, first at a boarding school and later as an engineering student at the prestigious University College London. He had been vetted for a U.S. tourist visa in 2008, and nothing of concern had been noted.
Yet last year, U.S. intelligence began to pick up several hints that pointed in his direction. The National Security Agency intercepted communications that Al Qaeda in Yemen was plotting an attack on the United States and that it planned to use a Nigerian to carry out a strike. According to Newsweek, the NSA also intercepted a phone conversation between Abdulmutallab and Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric in Yemen linked to the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. And then came the warning that Abdulmutallab’s father gave to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, which resulted in a so-called Visas Viper cable back to Washington suggesting that the son warranted further scrutiny for terrorist links.
Finally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were set to pull Abdulmutallab aside when his plane landed in Detroit. His name was on the list of passengers that all airlines since 9/11 must now provide to CBP on all flights headed for the U.S., and CBP had run its checks and discovered the State Department cable that linked him to Yemeni extremists. Had Adbulmutallab landed in Detroit, he would almost certainly have been sent back to Nigeria, and the case would have marked one more success for CBP’s targeting system, like that of Raed-al-Banna, the Jordanian who was turned back at Chicago’s O’Hare in 2003 and later died in a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq.
Clearly there were many failures in this case. His name should, as the President said, have been moved quickly to the “no fly” list, or at least to the “selectee” list, given the conjunction of different information that suggested his role in a plot. Even before that, his visa should have been revoked based on the information known to the U.S. government. There is no excusing those mistakes.
But it is critical to understand that this was a near-miss rather than an abject failure. Had the government known nothing at all of Abdulmutallab, there would be little choice but to continue to do heavy-handed pre-flight screening on everyone flying to the United States, giving foreign tourists, students, business executives and others one more reason not to come to this country.
Instead, the right response is to improve information-sharing and targeting systems to make sure that warnings are analyzed more quickly, the pieces are pulled together, and the names of those who might be a threat are put promptly into the hands of front-line transportation and border security officials. The real lesson of the Christmas bombing is this: the U.S. government has actually learned a lot since 9/11 about how to keep terrorists out of the United States. It wasn’t quite enough in this case, but it was awfully close.
Edward Alden is the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11, which tells the story of the development and impact of U.S. visa and border security measures since the 9/11 attacks.