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The System Failed

Abdulmutallab should never have made it on the plane.

3:00 PM, May 19, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has released an unclassified summary of its investigation into the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. The committee’s bottom line is that the system did not work.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been prevented from boarding Flight 253, but there were “a series of human errors, technical problems, systemic obstacles, analytical misjudgments, and competing priorities” that enabled Abdulmutallab “to travel to the United States on December 25, 2009.”

The committee outlines “fourteen specific points of failure,” but two are particular worrisome. A third and equally troubling point of failure was also identified by Senators Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr in their addendum to the report.

First, even though Abdulmutallab’s father walked into a U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, and told officials that his son may be a terrorist, Abuldmutallab wasn’t watchlisted. Why? The committee offers this explanation:

Although U.S.  Embassy officials in Abuja recommended that Abdulmutallab be placed on the No Fly List, the determination was made at CIA Headquarters and at the NCTC [note: National Counterterrorism Center] Watchlisting Office that there was only sufficient derogatory information to enter Abdulmutallab’s information in the general “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment” (TIDE) database, but not sufficient derogatory information to place him on any of the watchlists. Because of the language of the watchlisting standard, the manner in which it was being interpreted at the time, or both, analysts responsible for making the watchlisting determination did not believe they had the ability to give additional weight to significant pieces of information from the field, such as the report that resulted from the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father.

So, State Department officials thought Abdulmutallab should be added to the watchlist, which would have prevented him from boarding Flight 253, but other officials at the CIA and NCTC decided against it. That was a significant misjudgment, to say the least. 

The last sentence in the above passage is remarkably bad. Because of the “watchlisting standard” and/or the way it was interpreted, analysts did not place much emphasis on the warning from Abdulmutallab’s father. That is: An al Qaeda recruit’s father warned America about his son and yet the U.S. government still found a way to fail.

The committee did not let Foggy Bottom off the hook either, concluding that “Abdulmutallab’s visa should have been identified and revoked independently by the State Department based on the information provided to the consulate by other embassy officers.” This information included one assessment that Abdulmutallab “should be watchlisted because of suspected ‘involvement with Yemeni-based extremists.’”

In other words, State knew, to a certain extent, that Abdulmutallab was involved “with Yemen-based extremists,” or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

This brings us to the second point. The committee found:

Analysts’ competing priorities contributed to the failure of the Intelligence Community to identify Abdulmutallab as a potential threat. Prior to the 12/25 plot, counterterrorism analysts at NCTC, CIA, and NSA were focused on the threat of terrorist attacks in Yemen, but were not focused on the possibility of AQAP attacks against the U.S. homeland. These other priorities contributed to the failure of analysts to recognize and collate the several pieces of intelligence reporting that mentioned Abdulmutallab.

Again, this is remarkably bad. These agencies still do not understand the basics of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s strategy. Al Qaeda’s chief has worked hard to fold so called “local” jihadist groups into the al Qaeda network. The strategy has worked.

Consider al Qaeda’s Algerian affiliate, which is now part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The jihadists in Algeria fought in a brutal civil war, but they quickly began targeting mainland Europe. As early as 1994, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA (which was the name of the al Qaeda affiliate at the time), hijacked an Air France flight. They intended to fly it into the Eiffel Tower, but a successful counterterrorism operation stopped them. Another GIA member, Ahmed Ressam, was responsible for al Qaeda’s attempted millennium attack on the Los Angeles International Airport.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Morocco has gone from targeting the local government to assisting in al Qaeda’s international operations. The 2004 Madrid train bombings were carried out, in large part, by al Qaeda’s Moroccan affiliate.

Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliates assisted in the September 11 attacks, although they predominately target local governments and tourist spots for westerners. And 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed planned to use terrorists from these same affiliates in al Qaeda’s next wave of attacks on the continental U.S. as well. 

Al Qaeda has always been a joint venture of like-minded terrorist groups. Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahiri has headed for decades, is a core member of the joint venture. The EIJ went from targeting the Egyptian government to supporting al Qaeda’s international operations across the board.

There are plenty of additional examples in this vein. The point is that no counterterrorism analyst in the U.S. government – and certainly not analysts at the NCTC, CIA and NSA (!) – should assume that any al Qaeda affiliate will abstain from striking the American homeland. Once the words “al Qaeda” are used in an organization’s name it is a safe bet that the organization has at least some capacity devoted to assisting in attacks against America.

In the instance of the Christmas Day bombing, analysts knew that AQAP wanted to strike American targets inside Yemen. In September 2008, AQAP attacked the American embassy there.  Why no one considered “the possibility of AQAP attacks against the U.S. homeland” is bizarre to say the least. It is not that much of a stretch to think that AQAP would want to hit American targets elsewhere, including inside the U.S.

Finally, we come to the third particularly noteworthy point of failure, which was identified by Senators Chambliss and Burr in their “Additional Views.” The senators argue that in the wake of the September 11 attacks “several investigations” concluded that intelligence stove piping and the like were serious problems. Consequently, the senators write, the NCTC “was created to be the central knowledge bank for all terrorism related information” and is therefore “responsible and accountable for all terrorism related intelligence analysis.”

That is not how NCTC sees itself, however. The senators write (footnotes omitted): 

Instead, the Committee found in this review that no one agency believes its analysts are responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorist threats, essentially the same problem identified six years ago by the 9/11 Commission, which found “the intelligence community’s confederated structure left open the question of who was really in charge of the entire U.S. intelligence effort” to combat terrorism.  

Elsewhere in the report the Committee found that having multiple agencies working to counter the terrorist threat is beneficial in some ways. That is certainly true, but the entirety of the Committee’s report makes it clear that no one agency in the U.S. government pulled together all of the available information on Abdulmutallab, even though the NCTC was specifically built to do so.

Had someone, anyone, in the U.S. government done that, Abdulmutallab probably would have been added to the watchlist and therefore prevented from boarding Flight 253.

As it stands, Lady Luck saved the day – not the U.S. government’s multi-billion dollar intelligence and counterterrorism infrastructure.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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