How Did Terror Suspect Elude Security?

The 23-year-old Nigerian who was arrested Christmas Day for trying to blow up a Northwest aircraft as it prepared to land in Detroit was known to U.S. authorities. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been placed on a watch list after his father notified U.S. authorities in November about his son's extreme views. Newsweek investigative correspondent Mark Hosenball, who has been reporting on how Abdulmutallab was able to elude security officials, offers his insight.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility today for giving the explosive device to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He is the 23-year-old Nigerian who was arrested Christmas Day for trying to blow up a Northwest airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit. Also today, President Obama promised to track down those responsible for the attack and to step up air travel security.

President BARACK OBAMA: I have ordered a thorough review, not only of how information related to the subject was handled, but of the overall watch-list system and how it can be strengthened. The second review will examine all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel. We need to determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard and aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks. Third, I've directed my National Security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country.

SIEGEL: Abdulmutallab was known to U.S. authorities. He'd been placed on a watch list after his father notified the U.S. authorities in November about his son's extreme views. And yet Abdulmutallab had a visa to travel to the U.S. and was permitted to board a plane in Amsterdam, a plane that was headed for Detroit. Well, Newsweek investigative correspondent, Mark Hosenball has been reporting on how the 23-year-old Nigerian was able to elude security officials and joins us now.

Mark Hosenball, first, tell us about the security watch - the list that Abdulmutallab was placed on after his father went to U.S. officials in Nigeria.

Mr. MARK HOSENBALL (Investigative Correspondent, Newsweek): Well, he wasn't really on a watch list. He was in an intelligence community database, which is the master database, which keeps intelligence on terrorism suspects. That doesn't really constitute a watch list. For him to be put on a watch list, which is maintained by a different agency, they would have to have more information that creates reasonable suspicion that he either has recently engaged in terrorism or is about to engage in terrorism. The database that he was on is maintained by the national counterterrorism center, which is run by the office of the intelligence czar, this new agency set up after 9/11. The database, the watch list used to screen people for travel is maintained by another interagency union at terrorist screening center run by the FBI. So, it's a little bit kind of alphabet soup there of agencies.

SIEGEL: And his name went into the database after his father had gone to talk with U.S. diplomats or other U.S. officials in Nigeria.

Mr. HOSENBALL: That's correct.

SIEGEL: I'm worried about my son. He's�

Mr. HOSENBALL: Correct.

SIEGEL: Don't know where he is. He is hanging out with Yemenites.

Mr. HOSENBALL: He specific mentioned Yemen and as I understand that the mention of Yemen did trigger further inquiries by one or more U.S. intelligence agencies. But we don't really know much about those inquiries except that they did not, at least in a timely fashion, produce the kind of information that might have led to this guy being upgraded to watch lists and maybe banned from being allowed on the airplanes.

SIEGEL: In theory, should a report like that have made it to people who were looking at visas at airports all around the world - should someone on that basis by the standards of the intelligence community and counterintelligence folks, should they have been alerted to that or is that a garden-variety complaint that you have in this case?

Mr. HOSENBALL: It sounds like they're treating it under the current rules. And so the issue is, are the rules correct? As more common or garden-variety complaint, as I understand it, and there's been congressional testimony on this very recently from the person who runs the terrorist screening center, the unit that prepares the no-fly list, you have to have reasonable suspicion - whatever that means, and it's a pretty elastic term - before you put somebody on a list that would restrict their travel or require them to be screened more thoroughly. The view of the intelligence community on the information from the father received about this guy is that that did not constitute reasonable suspicion.

SIEGEL: A couple of other points: I gather that the young man bought his ticket with cash. Isn't that supposed to be a great red flag that goes up when people buy a ticket into the U.S. with cash?

Mr. HOSENBALL: It is supposed to be a great red flag. And again, the further question would be if he bought it the same day that the plane took off, that's supposed to be an additional indicator. So, with cash, same-day plane took off - I'm not sure on the later point but I have read that he bought it with cash. However, from the sound of things, the ticket was bought in Nigeria, and it may well be - in fact, I suspect it probably is the case - that information as to the circumstances of him buying the ticket with cash probably never made it through the system to the United States. It wouldn't surprise me if that's the case.

SIEGEL: So, Abdulmutallab was in a database - you say, watch list is too strong a word - in a database. How many names would be in that database?

Mr. HOSENBALL: I believe about 550,000 although some of them may be duplicates or, you know, different names from the same person.

SIEGEL: And then to actually wonder how many people are on a no-fly list such that if they turned up�

Mr. HOSENBALL: On the no-fly list, there's less than 4,000 as it was explained to me.

SIEGEL: Fewer than 4,000 people.


SIEGEL: So, I guess, you wouldn't very naturally catch a new suspect that way, you would catch a known offender, or some such.

Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, as I understand it you don't get on the no-fly list unless they have pretty specific information that you were about to attack an airplane. So, that's a pretty limited - presumably a pretty limited category of people.

SIEGEL: So far as you know, are U.S., Dutch counterintelligence relations typically effective, good, and healthy or is there any strain between them that you know of?

Mr. HOSENBALL: I don't think there's any strain. I don't know that the U.S. - I know some - a little bit about the Dutch intelligence service. I don't know that the U.S. government treats it very seriously but I'm not aware of any strains. But again, the Dutch could only operate here on the standard procedures and on information that they had from the Americans. It's not clear that they had any information that should or would have called their attention to this guy.

SIEGEL: Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek thanks for talking with us.

Mr. HOSENBALL: Thank you.

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Bomb Suspect's Motives Baffle Family, Friends

Suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a photo from the U.S. Marshal's Service. i

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, has been charged in federal court with trying to detonate an explosive device on a Dec. 25 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. U.S. Marshal's Service/AP hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Marshal's Service/AP
Suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a photo from the U.S. Marshal's Service.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, has been charged in federal court with trying to detonate an explosive device on a Dec. 25 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

U.S. Marshal's Service/AP

The family of the 23-year-old Nigerian man held after a failed Christmas Day attempt to set off an explosive device on a plane en route to Detroit issued its first formal statement Monday, describing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's recent behavior as entirely out of character.

But his father had previously warned the Nigerian, Saudi Arabian and U.S. authorities about his son's increasingly radical views.

By all accounts, Abdulmutallab is a well-educated, devout Muslim from a wealthy northern Nigerian family.

He graduated last year from the prestigious University College London, where he studied mechanical engineering.

He had gone on to study in Dubai, then told his family he was going to Yemen. His father, Umaru Abdulmutallab, a prominent Nigerian banker, became concerned about two months ago, when his son abruptly broke off contact with the family.

The father alerted local and foreign security agencies, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

Information Minister Dora Akunyili told a news conference that Abdulmutallab's family was shocked to hear his name linked to the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Northwest flight that took off from Amsterdam.

"The father — Alhaji Umaru Mutallab —- who is a responsible and respected Nigerian, has already expressed deep shock and regret over his son's action," Akunyili said. "We want to reiterate that Nigeria as a nation abhors all forms of terrorism. Nigerian security agencies are working hand in hand with international security agencies on this matter."

In its statement today, Abdulmutallab's family said that before cutting ties, the suspect had never displayed any behavior to give them concern. Mike Rimmer, his history teacher for three years at the exclusive British School of Lome in the west African nation of Togo, said he couldn't believe his ears when he heard the news.

"I was absolutely shocked," Rimmer said. "I was expecting great things from Umar. I certainly wasn't expecting this. He was a great lad. He was a model student — very keen, very enthusiastic."

Rimmer told the BBC that it hadn't occurred to him then, but perhaps there were early signs that he had missed.

"He was always very religious and some of the things he said were over the top," Rimmer recalled. "For example, in 2001 we had a number of class discussions about the Taliban. All the other Muslim kids in the class thought they were a bunch of nutters. But Umar spoke in their defense. I thought maybe he was playing devil's advocate, trying to keep the class discussion going."

Efemena Mokedi, a high school classmate of Abdulmutallab's, told the BBC he was astonished to hear about his friend, whom he described as "a very friendly person."

"You know, we played on the same basketball team growing up," Mokedi said. "He was a very devoted, religious person. He was an honest person. So the numbers do not add up."



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