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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.

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