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Friday, January 08, 2010

The Abdulmutallab intelligence failure

Writing in Haaretz, Yossi Melman has some key details about Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab that make clear why the type of questioning that goes on at Ben Gurion Airport would have been the only way to stop him.
The new machines are meant to discover changes on the surface of the skin, things placed next to the body that protrude. What Abdulmutallab did was both simple and clever: The substances were not against his skin, but inside a double lining in his underpants, thickened about a half centimeter for this purpose. No X-ray machine would be able to disclose this; only an invasive search would.


In practice, Abdulmutallab's attempt to secret the explosives on his body was an almost exact replica of two previous terror acts. A few months ago, a Yemenite terrorist hid explosives in his anus and set them off when he approached the Saudi Arabian deputy interior minister. In November 2001, the Briton Richard Reid (known as "the shoe bomber") boarded a plane for Miami in Paris. Reid, and Abdulmutallab eight years later, carried the same substances on their bodies: TATP and PETN, which are easy to prepare, and especially sensitive to changes in weather, and to shaking or friction - qualities which made them especially beloved by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers as far back as the 1990s. Each one of the two substances by itself is not dangerous, but when combined (no need for a detonator), they are deadly. They ignite and explode. Reid hid them in his shoes and tried to set them off with matches hidden in his socks, but which did not ignite because they were damp. Abdulmutallab tried to mix them using a syringe.
Melman also discusses some of the things that should have tipped intelligence off to Abdulmutallab long before he boarded a Northwest Airlines jet in Amsterdam.
According to information which has reached Haaretz, Abdulmutallab arrived in Ghana a few weeks before he set out on his fatal mission. His operators gave him underwear with a double lining, to create concealed compartment containing the dangerous substances, and cash. He used the money in Accra, Ghana's capital, to buy a plane ticket to Lagos, and from there to Amsterdam and Detroit. He paid $2,800 in cash for the entire journey, almost three times the price of a regular ticket.

There is a direct flight from Accra to New York, but he did not take it. The assumption is that his operators collected information and received the impression that Delta security checks in Accra were good, and the chance of getting caught there high. So they chose a flight with Nigerian Eagle Airlines to Lagos, where Abdulmutallab had about a two-hour layover before boarding the flight to Amsterdam. He also could have flown directly from Lagos to the United Staes, but apparently his handlers decided that the chance of him being caught was again too high.


The focus on tracking down intelligence errors is important. The questions asked in this context are how Abdulmutallab was granted a visa to the United States, and why the warning his father gave to the American embassy in Lagos that his son had become an extremist was not taken seriously, along with information from British intelligence. But these questions miss another important aspect of the case: The failure is mainly that of the security system at the Amsterdam airport and of Delta-Northwest Airlines. Even if intelligence fails, security should locate the terrorist.

Loose security is apparently why Abdulmutallab's handlers selected Delta-Northwest and Amsterdam airport. Most American airlines, on most of their international flights, use the profiling system, the security method employed by the Israeli security services: identifying a potential terrorist according to parameters set in advance (ethnicity, age, gender, purpose of visit and so on). The system includes a thorough questioning which attempts to locate potentially dangerous people according to certain indicators.

Abdulmutallab had these in abundance: A young Muslim who bought an expensive ticket at the last minute, and flew to the United States with only hand luggage. He did not take a direct flight, but instead chose one with two stopovers. He did not apply for a U.S. visa in his home country, but did so earlier, in London. All of these signs should have made him suspicious, but the security personnel were negligent in carrying out their task and allowed him to board the plane.
Remind me not to fly through Amsterdam and not to fly Northwest/Delta except from Ben Gurion.

At The New Republic, Phillip Crowley notes the similarities between this incident and one in Saudi Arabia last month and says that the US was warned.
Prince Nayaf himself flew to Washington to warn Obama administration officials about this new underwear bomb threat, according to Newsweek—which also recently disclosed a joint report produced by the National Counterterrorism Center, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA, on the threat of both underwear and butt bombs. That report had both good and bad news about the alarming concept of explosive Al Qaeda asses. On the downside, the report found that even full-body-image scanners at airports might not detect anally stashed explosives. The upside is that much of the blast from such a rear-end bomb would be absorbed by the terrorist’s body—perhaps enough of the explosion that the airplane would not crash.

But don’t exhale just yet. It stands to reason that a terrorist who wants to down a plane needs only to smuggle his PETN onboard, much like a drug mule with a cocaine-stuffed rectum. After that, he can excuse himself to the lavatory and extract his cargo, then return to his seat to detonate the explosive outside his body.
And Washington is being run by a bunch of incompetent fools who think there's no such thing as terrorism ('man-caused disasters') and no war on it.

What could go wrong?


At 3:22 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Carl - you should be aware Yossi Melman is a leftist post-Zionist who thinks Israel should give up Jerusalem. I don't know how a guy with his loony world view can still write an intelligent article for Haaretz. Yisrael Medad wrote about him last year and I loathe him, too. But even a broken clock is right once in a while.


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