It’s unclear from news reports who precisely stopped Faisal Shahzad – the would-be Times Square bomber – from departing the United States. While his name appeared to have been added to the No-Fly list on Monday afternoon, he was still able to board an Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai. It’s possible the information had not yet been processed in Emirates’ computer system. Fortunately, Shahzad’s name triggered an alert when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checked the manifest against the relevant watchlists.
While we should be grateful for the successful conclusion of a 48-hour manhunt, the last-minute rush to prevent the plane from taking off underlines the need for close cooperation and timely communication between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), particularly CBP, and the airlines.
Such cooperation and communication will be especially critical to full implementation of the U.S. government’s new approach to screening passengers departing from foreign countries. Announced on April 2 to replace the measures put in place in the wake of the Christmas bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, this new approach no longer relies on fixed categories of nationality and departure points as the dominant screening criteria. Instead, it focuses on using intelligence to make individual assessments of the need for enhanced screening. All passengers who match specific criteria, including travel patterns, will be subjected to additional security measures.
The success of this new approach depends on close and timely cooperation among airlines, airport authorities, foreign governments and DHS, particularly CBP. As the Shahzad case demonstrates, these decisions have to be made in real time. The people in the field – including airport authorities, airline employees and others – will have to be able to respond within minutes to decisions made at DHS headquarters. Airlines and foreign airport authorities especially will need to ensure that these developing protocols account for their own system capabilities and foreign laws and policies regarding passenger screening.