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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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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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