Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The System "Worked Really Very, Very Smoothly" in Detroit?

The near-success of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, to set off an explosive on Christmas Day should open the American public's eyes to the sad state of counterterrorism eight years after 9/11.

The incident involved a Nigerian national in Seat 19A – ideally placed over the fuel tanks, atop the wing, and next to the exterior of the aircraft – of Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

As summarized by the Wall Street Journal, it happened as the Airbus 330-300 carrying 289 people was approaching Detroit.

Mr. Abdulmutallab went to the plane's restroom for about 20 minutes, and upon returning to his seat he stated that his stomach was upset, and he pulled a blanket over himself, according to the Justice Department complaint.

As the flight was heading for a landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport before noon, the complaint alleges, Mr. Abdulmutallab set off the device. Passengers heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed Mr. Abdulmutallab's pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire.

Subsequent investigations learned that the plot was organized and launched by Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen, who arranged for 80 grams of PETN (pentaerythritol) to be sewn in Abdulmutallab's underwear. Investigators concluded that only a chance malfunction prevented the explosives from bringing down the Northwest plane.

Umar Farouk's father, Umaru Abdulmutallab, former chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria and one of his country's most prominent businessmen, recently went to the U.S. embassy in Abuja to warn about his son's "radicalization and associations," prompting American officialdom to place the son on a terror watch list of about 550,000 names, the Terrorist Screening Data Base.

But they did not place him on the list of about 15,000 individuals who must go through additional screening, much less the list of about 4,000 people on the "no-fly" list, who are not allowed to fly to or in the United States. Nor did they revoke Abdulmutallab's two-year, multi-entry tourist visa. Nor did an air marshal accompany his flight.

Despite these multiple failures, Janet Napolitano, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, astonishingly claimed that the system "worked really very, very smoothly" in Detroit.

This institutional myopia increases my worries about U.S. law enforcement. Of course, had the system worked, Abdulmutallab would never have entered the airplane, much less set off an explosive device.

Looking ahead, the Transportation Security Administration has issued an emergency order requiring travelers headed for the United States to undergo a "thorough pat-down" at the boarding gate, with a focus on the upper legs and torso and a secondary inspection of carry-on baggage. During the final hour on all U.S. flights, passengers must remain seated, may not access carry-on baggage or keep personal items on their laps.

More delights may follow, reports the New York Times: "Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item aboard the plane. … On one flight, from Newark Airport, flight attendants kept cabin lights on for the entire trip instead of dimming them for takeoff and landing. … In effect, the restrictions mean that passengers on flights of 90 minutes or less would most likely not be able to leave their seats at all."

As Phyllis Chesler plaintively asks, "Are we all going to be subjected to underwear checks before boarding our flights? If so, Al-Qaeda will soon secrete explosives in body cavities. Will we all be searched there as well?"

In other words, because U.S. security agencies refuse to take the sensible precaution of concentrating their resources on the small target pool of suspects, namely Muslims, about 1 percent of the population, hundreds of millions of passengers must bear the burden of extra cost, inconvenience, and loss of privacy.

The Detroit episode renders invalid several aphorisms I honed over recent years:

  • Had U.S. law enforcement devoted the attention to the 9/11 plotters that it has since given to counterterrorism, 9/11 would never have taken place.
  • While Sudden Jihad Syndrome by isolated individuals remains beyond the abilities of American institutions to stop (viz., the Ft. Hood shooter last month), terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda are well under surveillance.
  • Government authorities have terrorism under control, so we private analysts can focus instead on the non-violent forms of radical Islam known variously as "stealth jihad," "creeping Shari'a," "lawful Islamism," or "Islamism 2.0."

The Northwest incident takes me back to 9/11 itself, when I wrote a bitter analysis how the U.S. government had "grievously failed in its topmost duty to protect American citizens from harm." That failure continues.

What size disaster must occur to inspire a serious approach to counterterrorism?

Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

Dec. 28, 2009 update:

Janet Napolitano reversed her inane comment under withering criticism, saying on NBC's "Today" program this morning that "Our system did not work in this instance.

No one is happy or satisfied with that." But her original statement still indicates an alarmingly self-satisfied mentality at the upper reaches of the Obama administration.

Daniel Pipes

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