On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to destroy a U.S. Commercial aircraft and kill U.S. citizens. In the fast pace of a media world, this is likely old news. Even so, for folks (like myself) that may have still been attempting to dig out from under a snow storm Iʼm posting some of what we know so far.
- Abdulmutallab departed Lagos, Nigeria onboard a KLM flight bound Amsterdam. Upon arrival at the Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport, he transferred to Northwest Airlines flight 253 (Delta Flight – recent corporate merger) bound for Detroit, Michigan.
- The Atlantic bound flight proceeded as normal until the approach to Detroit. He was seated on the Airbus 330-300 in seat 19A, next to the window and directly over the port (left) wing and fuel tank.
- Approximately 20 minutes before landing, Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive device. The explosive was two-part component: Liquid initiator and a powdery substance; the powder was attached to Abdulmutallabʼs inner thigh (near his groin) – the chemical initiator was transported in a syringe. The intended explosive was PETN.
- The chemical reaction ignited rather than cause an explosion as Abdulmutallab intended. Passengers and crew intervened extinguishing the fire. Abdulmutallab (and reportedly some passengers) received burns in the process.
Other Pertinent Information
Some time prior to the incident Abdulmutallabʼs Father spoke with U.S. Embassy personnel in Nigeria. He reportedly indicated that he felt his son (Abdulmutallab) was associated with al-Qaeda and had become an extremist.
• When and how did he know this?
• Did he know his sonʼs location, contact information or associates?
• Did he know of his sonʼs intended attack? If so, was that reported?
• Why did the U.S. State Department NOT invalidate his Visa, or at least indicate that he would be required to go through a secondary screening?
On November 13, 2009, a similar instance occurred on a commercial aircraft departing Somalia. The Daalo Airlines flight departed Mogadishu bound for Dubai with stops in Hargeisa, Somalia and Djibouti. In that instance the individual was arrested by African Union peacekeeping personnel. Like Abdulmutallab, this individual was also carrying a powdery substance, chemicals and a syringe. To date, the identity of the individual in Somalia has not been disclosed, where he is detained, what the intended plan is for him or whether he is associated with al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab (AQ associated group in Somalia).
• Did the African Union peacekeeping personnel report this incident to U.S. or coalition agencies? If so, to whom and what did they do with it?
• What was the individualʼs motive and target? The aircraft or one of the three cities the aircraft would fly over?
• What was the individualʼs prior travel history?
Realistically, these questions and several hundred more are those that should be, and likely are being asked by both the Law Enforcement and Intelligence Communities. Numerous media entities expect answers to these questions. But hereʼs the deal…while this isnʼt popular…some questions donʼt need to be answered publicly. I keep in contact with many folks from three-letter agencies in both LE and the IC. There are many good people working very hard to do the right things. Many are challenged from information overload.
Since 9/11, many changes were incorporated to expand information sharing and collaboration between the agencies. Joint duty assignments are now available to embed members into other agencies to build relationships and learn the otherʼs business process. Open Source has been ʻofficiallyʼ declared an intelligence methodology since the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 identified open media as an underutilized collection method. With this requires more personnel, training, resources and systems to handle the massive amounts of information.
Are there challenges? Yes there are. Are there failures? Yes. Take for instance the FBI Agent in San Diego that kept Malik Nadal Hassanʼs (Ft. Hood) file on his desk for months, never asked for updates or moved forward to look at possible consequences leading up to the Fort Hood tragedy. That instance was a failure…but it is not business as usual. Regardless of what some media reporting states, our LE and IC partners are not inept. They donʼt get up each day as ask themselves how they can best screw something up to put people in jeopardy.
Getting back to challenges, there are at least two that are persistent. Here is the closing paragraph from my book, “Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System.” This statement was true then as it is today.
“I have seen many hard-working men and women trying to make things better. Yet, some above them fear change because change equals unacceptable and personal risk to their careers. As a nation, we need strong leadership. We must be willing to put in the due diligence knowing our hard work may not benefit us, but steer a safe path for those that come after. We benefit today because of those who came before us. We have strong challenges ahead. These are opportunities to extend the legacy of a free, democratic society and the building of a safer nation.”
There are some within LE and the IC that have pushed back when change came their way. Few succeeded in their obstinate posture and either became a part of the progress or retired. In the eight years since 9/11 many of those challenges have been overcome. Yet, in some areas, there are still pockets of obsolescence. For those, I would recommend taking a look at that long-awaited fishing trip or perfecting the golf game…and retire.
Yet, another issue is much more troubling and consistently places our country in jeopardy. Our adversaries care little for how kind and gentle their enemies are. They understand power and respect those that do what they say they will do. When our adversaries see uncertainty in the way our nation addresses a terrorism incident and is afraid to call it what it is – Terrorism, then we are seen as a weak target, open to increased operational targeting. In this incident, our nation broadcast a diatribe of foolish statements, likely without counsel from LE or IC experts. Telling the world, “The system worked”…”There are some issues”…”This was an isolated extremist”…”There are systemic failures” telling the world that we have a dysfunctional LE and IC capability. This is not our nationʼs current posture; this is a case of unqualified people speaking without thinking.
Last week President Obama when asked about Guantanamo Bay, said “International image is more important than security.” I think our citizens would rather have our friends and loved ones alive than risk their safety in the name of image. Image means nothing when terrorists want to kill our citizens and destroy our country. Showing power, the ability to assess a situation for what it is and act upon it means everything.
This is not intended as an attack against any specific individuals (well, maybe one or two). It is an attack against a weak posture that places our country in the bore sight of additional strikes. While al-Qaeda is seen as a primary adversary, they are not the only entities aiming their ill will in our direction.
Even so, sticking with the AQ threat we have seen them plan multiple aircraft attacks with OPERATION BOJINKA and a similar attempt with commercial aircraft crossing the Atlantic. I have written numerous times that I believe they will strike aircraft again. A successful attack onboard an aircraft would be seen as an international slap in the face to U.S. and coalition partners, thereby elevating the terroristʼs image. This is an image makeover we donʼt need.
From an operational standpoint, human factors and screening limitations ease the path for attacks against this transportation system. Al-Qaeda tends to follow a similar playbook. They will use what works and conduct multiple strikes in a short period of time. Given that, the Abdulmutallab attempt could have been a trial run or an unlikely change in the AQ operational strategy. I believe this could have been a combination of both. Had the attack gone as planned hundreds of passengers, crew and an untold number of citizens on the ground would have been killed on Christmas day; a day seen as an affront to Islam. A successful attack would likely then be planned for multiple aircraft strikes as attempted twice before. I am not sharing secrets. Al-Qaeda is, “In your face” about what they do. They attempt to show power and they do (or attempt to do) what they say theyʼll do.
In an attempt to give President Obama some credit, I have to agree when he said there were “Systemic failures.” The failure seemed to begin with the State Department when they failed to invalidate Abdulmutallabʼs visa. Holding an entrance visa and traveling to the U.S. is not a right – it is a privilege only after thorough screening, proving the travelerʼs intent is legitimate. There is a study that originated from the 9/11 hearings – “9/11 and Terrorist Travel”. This report describes failure upon failure regarding the 9/11 attackers. The Abdulmutallab attempt shows little progress in the visa screening process or due diligence regarding this particular visa and travel.
Prior to boarding a U.S. bound aircraft, personnel screening failed. Abdulmutallab had a one way ticket, paid for with cash to enter the U.S. for a religious conference and had no luggage. An appropriate screening would have checked to ensure there was an actual conference, if he was registered, who he would be visiting and where he would stay during the trip. Even with a one-day conference or business meeting, most people carry some luggage in case of layover. Yet, Abdulmutallab was flying on an international route carrying only his explosives.
Itʼs long past time for the State Department to get onboard and revamp the entrance visa screening process. Another change necessary is with the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. While she made have done a good job as Governor of Arizona, there are some positions of responsibility that are beyond a personʼs capability. Itʼs better to leave at the top of the game than appear to be sitting in a muddy gutter. Itʼs my belief that the top was never reached with this Secretary and whether it was for lack of capability, political interference or both…itʼs time for change. There have been many times when I felt like saying, “Just get out of the way and let me do it.” DHS needs good leadership, a revamping of morale to a constant evaporating DHS workforce, an active unit whose purpose is to identify vulnerabilities and they need to stay abreast with current technologies to keep the nation safe. While thatʼs likely a foolish thought, Iʼm also smart enough to know that I likely wouldnʼt last long because I donʼt care about political agendas; I care about getting the job done and thatʼs not always popular in DC.
Given that, some of the “DHS fixes” I noted above is necessary. We need well trained motivated personnel that are afforded the proper resources and technologies to do the job right without interference from those with political agendas. As a nation, we need to speak with one constant international voice broadcasting the intent to protect our nation from terrorism – we wonʼt tolerate it and if you try to attack us we will get you and everyone that helps you.
- Anthony M. Davis, CMAS