12.26.09

Missed Warning Signs

As investigators say al Qaeda planned the Christmas day attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253, sources tell Gerald Posner that signs point to a security slip-up at the Lagos embassy.

As investigators say al Qaeda planned a Nigerian man's Christmas Day attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253, sources tell Gerald Posner that signs point to a security slip-up at the Lagos embassy.

The first goal of government investigators this Christmas weekend? “Trying to figure out if the guy is a nut or an operator,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, referring to 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national who unsuccessfully tried to ignite an explosive device on an incoming Northwest airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Al Qaeda or angry loner?

The second goal is almost as urgent. How did someone whose father, the recently retired chairman of Nigeria’s First Bank, had apparently warned American embassy officials several weeks ago that his son’s religious views had become increasingly extreme and militant, gain access to a plane heading to the United States?

Although Abdulmutallab was on a U.S. law-enforcement intelligence database, The Daily Beast has learned that no one evidently tagged the information from the Lagos embassy.

Although his father’s warning got Abdulmutallab on a broad list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment repository, along with 550,000 other people, The Daily Beast has learned that no one evidently tagged the information from the Lagos embassy as a priority and then highlighted it so he would be placed into a more-active suspect database (the Terrorist Screening Database). If they had, according to one counterterrorism official who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, security procedures could have promptly moved Abdulmutallab to a no-fly list. (The information passed from Lagos was so generic that, according to what an unnamed U.S. administration official told Reuters on Saturday, it was not negative enough to include him on any banned flying list.)

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This incident isn’t viewed by counterterrorism officials to whom I spoke as a general flaw in the aviation security system, but rather as the isolated failure of local embassy intelligence officers to make the warning they received more specific and word it in a way that would set off the system’s warning bells. A senior administration official told The New York Times that “The information was passed into the system, but the expression of radical extremist views were very nonspecific. We were evaluating him, but the information we had was not a lot to go on.”

Ultimately then, the attempted terror attack failed not because of good intel, but because two of the 278 passengers jumped Abdulmatallab immediately after he tried activating a powdery mix he had strapped to his thigh, with a chemical solution he mixed in from a hypodermic needle that he managed to slip past security both in Lagos, Nigeria, and at Amsterdam’s packed Schiopol Airport. Lagos is notoriously lax for security, but Amsterdam is considered one of the better European capitals at screening.

On Saturday, in a federal criminal complaint filed against Abdulmutallab, the government revealed that a preliminary FBI analysis of the device revealed it contained PETN pentaerythritol a high explosive.

Abdulmatallab suffered severe second-degree burns but is expected to survive. He’s being treated at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Not surprisingly, the eyewitness accounts of the panicked scene varied. But at least one person on the plane reportedly claimed they heard Abdulmutallab express anger over Western intervention in Afghanistan. The suspect later told investigators that he obtained the explosive chemicals from a Yemeni bomb expert who is closely associated with al Qaeda. The al Qaeda wing that operates in Yemen is run by an extremist Yemeni cleric, who Abdulmutallab says he was in touch with via by the Internet.

He also reportedly told FBI interrogators that he was directed by al Qaeda to set off the device on a U.S. plane over American soil. One counterterrorism official, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, said it was not clear if that boast “was simply aspirational.” But Jane Harman, the House representative who is chief of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence told reporters, that “The facts are still emerging, but there are strong suggestions of a Yemen-Al Qaeda connection….”

Now, instead of arresting Abdulmutallab, who flew under his real name when he presented his ticket in Lagos, all international fliers to the U.S. will instead be inconvenienced by this communications snafu. Airline rules announced Saturday instituted extra baggage screening, additional personal inspections, and a stricter enforcement of an existing rule that permits passengers to only bring one carry-on bag. In addition, all passengers on U.S.-bound international flights will not be able to move about the cabin during the last hour of the flight. That’s intended to thwart the continuing fascination that terrorists have with wrecking havoc in U.S. aviation, especially when there’s a chance to do so over American soil.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account the first hour of any flight that originates in the U.S. American authorities are still confident they can prevent an active bomber from boarding a plane at a domestic airport. The lack of confidence is in foreign security. But given the apparent failure to recognize the importance of the warning received at the Lagos embassy, the problem can also be the failure to assess and pick out the key info that floods the complex counterterrorism matrix.

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.