Wednesday, 13. January 2010
On Christmas Day, 2009, 23-year old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to blow up a plane on route from Amsterdam to Detroit by detonating a device stitched to his underwear. Fortunately, in yet another example of the level of sophistication of the new league of violent extremists, Abdulmutallab succeeded only in setting fire to his own crotch, before being apprehended by fellow passengers.
Security officials now reveal that the attack was planned by an al-Qaeda network in Yemen, where Abdulmutallab was apparently radicalized and trained, although he had been originally recruited, they say, in London. During his stint in London as a student, Abdulmutallab had been President of the Islamic Society at University College London.
The incident has been described as a major intelligence failure exposing the ongoing weakness of US and British security infrastructures and procedures. According to President Barack Obama, intelligence agencies were unable to “connect and understand” separate strands of information that would have alerted them to the attempted attack. “What we have here is a situation in which the failings were individual, organizational, systemic and technological,” said one US official. “We ended up in a situation where a single point of failure in the system put our security at risk, where human error was compounded by systemic deficiencies in a way that we cannot allow to continue.”
More simply: no one is to blame.
British Security Surveillance
The problem is that the official narrative is already hopelessly littered with contradictions. Abdulmutallab was apparently first added to the UK Border Agency’s immigration watch list in May 2009 after failing to get a UK entry visa. “His refusal was not on national security grounds”, claimed an early BBC report rather earnestly, “but because he had been tagged as a potential illegal immigrant because he had applied to study at a bogus college… This would, in theory, have prevented him from entering the UK – but not from passing through the country, if he was in transit to another country.”
We now know that MI5 had him “tagged” as far more than a “potential illegal immigrant.” “The security services knew three years ago that the Detroit bomber had “multiple communications’ with Islamic extremists in Britain”, reported the Times of London. “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was ‘reaching out’ to extremists whom MI5 had under surveillance while he was studying at University College London.” And then, another crucial caveat: “None of the information was passed to American officials, which will prompt questions about intelligence failures prior to the attack.”
Unfortunately, it now turns out that MI5’s files on Abdulmutallab were, indeed, passed on to the Americans – despite their initial claims that they had received nothing. As the Scotsman reported: “On Monday, Downing Street revealed that intelligence on Abdulmutallab had been passed to the US authorities before the Detroit incident. That revelation prompted suggestions of a rift between Gordon Brown and the White House, and increased pressure on US security agencies to explain why they had failed to identify the alleged bomber.”
CIA and NSA
The narrative from the American side has now also taken shape. Security analyst Tom Burghardt provides a meticulous overview: Abdulmutallab was placed in a “catch-all” US terrorism watch list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), containing 550,000 individuals. This by itself was not enough to put him on a no-fly list. But in September 2009, the National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly picked up intercepts among al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen planning an imminent terror plot by a Nigerian man. The intercepts were translated and disseminated “across classified computer networks”, including the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) run by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Then in November, Abdulmutallab’s father, a former top Nigerian government official, provided detailed information to the US embassy in Nigeria warning that his son was a violent extremist.
“The father of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab talked about his son’s extremist views with someone from the CIA and a report was prepared, but the report was not circulated outside the agency”, reported CNN. The information supposedly sat in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virgina, for five weeks. Yet it is not actually clear whether this was indeed the case: “But an intelligence official said that the son’s name, passport number and possible connection to extremists were indeed disseminated”, CNN continued. “State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said department staff did what they were supposed to have done by sending a cable to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington about the matter.”
“But officials did not revoke his two-year multiple-entry visa, which was issued in June 2008” added the BBC. “Instead, Mr Abdulmutallab’s file was marked for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa.”
And the State Department’s initial justification for this studious inaction? … (drum roll)… the information received contained “nothing specific” that would have alerted authorities to the attack.
According to a US source familiar with terrorist watch list processes and procedures:
“Once Abdulmutallab’s dad went to the embassy Nov. 19 and made a complaint, a report was generated and sent to NCTC”
“Once NCTC receives such a report, an intelligence analyst checks to see if the person has any other associations in the database. If it’s the first time the person’s name is coming up, NCTC creates a record under the person’s name, as was done with Abdulmutallab, and that name is added to the TIDE [Terrorism Identities Datamart Environment] list. Agencies across the federal government have access to TIDE.”
“Once a person is added to TIDE, as Abdulmutallab was, an intelligence analyst determines if there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that he is engaged or intends to engage in a terrorist attack. If the person is found to have ‘reasonable suspicion,’ then an unclassified list with that person’s name on it is sent to the Terrorist Screening Center. That did not happen with Abdulmutallab because the intelligence analyst at NCTC did not find ‘reasonable suspicion’ based on the State Department report, which the source said consisted only of what the Nigerian man’s father said — that he was concerned about his son.”
Unfortunately, we now know that this explanation cannot wash. Only two days after the failed attack, Associated Press reported that: “Abdulmutallab came to the attention of intelligence officials months earlier though [than November 2009], according to a U.S. government official involved in the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is ongoing.”
Unjoining the Dots
Indeed, highly specific MI5 surveillance and reports tracking Abdulmutallab’s contacts with UK extremists and his “journey” of radicalization as early as 2007, were passed onto US authorities contrary to early official claims; detailed NSA intercepts uncovered al-Qaeda plot preparations in Yemen led by a Nigerian; urgent warnings from his own father documented by the CIA culminating in an extensive dossier covering issues from his educational history to his plans to study Islamic law in Yemen. If standard security procedures had been followed, Abdulmutallab should have been in the system and red-flagged. As Burghardt rightly observes:
“Despite the fact that Abdulmutallab was denied re-entry into Britain, paid $2,800 in cash for his ‘ticket to Paradise,’ and had no luggage that normally would accompany a person holding a 2-year entry visa into the U.S., the erstwhile lap bomber scored a goal each time and eluded every intrusive ‘profile’ presumably in place to keep us ‘safe.’ Talk about a hat trick!
Available evidence suggests that Abdulmutallab should have landed on TSA’s hush-hush ‘Selectee list’ for additional screening, or the agency’s ‘No-fly list.’ And given NSA intercepts and a CIA biographical report on the suspect, this alone should have barred him from entering the country if ‘normal’ security procedures were followed. They weren’t.”
Similarly, Mark Thompson of Time Magazine also noted, even disregarding the wider intelligence: “Abdulmutallab’s recent stay in Yemen, combined with his father’s warning and the fact that he paid cash for a one-way ticket and didn’t check any luggage, should have been sufficient to set off alarm bells.”
President Barack Obama has now declared that this was a “systemic failure” that was “totally unacceptable.” But how could such a failure occur yet again, nearly 10 years after 9/11, which was blamed precisely on the same kind of “systemic failures” that should have been resolved given the billions of dollars of taxpayer’s funding already poured into a discredited intelligence community? Curiously, a Wired report in October 2009 noted that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was “shutting down two of its more important collaboration tools, called uGov and BRIDGE” – uGov being the most significant here:
“ODNI frequently stands up temporary analytical groups that take in analysts from agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the DIA and the National Security Agency (NSA); the uGov domain made it easy to give all of them a common platform… UGov has been especially popular among the large tranche of analysts who joined the community after 9/11. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) runs the network.”
So just as critical information was coming into the intelligence community about Abdulmutallab, the ODNI began to dismantle one of its most important interagency information-sharing initiatives.
Profiteering from Fear: The Brennan Connection
It gets worse. The wider context that has been totally ignored by mainstream media is the wholesale privatization of the US national security infrastructure.
As Burghardt also notes, the NCTC responsible for the terror watch list is “outsourced” to The Analysis Corporation (TAC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Global Strategies Group USA (GSG), a British firm. GSG USA’s President is John Hillel – a former contributing editor to the neoconservative propaganda outlet National Review, a defence policy advisor to George W. Bush during his first presidential campaign, and a Bush appointee to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs (2005-7). Previously the NCTC’s first director, John Brennan became CEO of TAC in November 2005. Citing investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, Burghardt goes on to note that TAC provides counterterrorism support to “most of the agencies within the intelligence community”. One of its biggest clients is the NCTC, and one of its first tasks was the creation of the TIPOFF terrorist database, which later became TIDE.
Now, Obama has appointed John Brennan to lead a “comprehensive interagency review” of travel security measures. But in the words of IntelNews, “A veteran CIA official appointed to review the US government’s defective terrorism watch-list system, was actually involved in designing it, and later helped sustain it through a lucrative private-sector contract.” The report continues, noting that “not only was Brennan part of the US National Counterterrorism Center team that designed the terrorism watch-list system, but he also helped sustain it while heading the Analysis Corporation, a scandal-prone private contractor charged with overseeing the watch-list system.”
No conflict of interest then.
This analysis suggests that the failure to red-flag Abdulmutallab in advance was not a consequence of “nothing specific” in terms of intelligence information (the first narrative of explanation); not the consequence of systemic loopholes in a flawed travel security system that prevented the joining of dots (the second narrative of explanation); but was the consequence of a failure to implement existing normal security procedures. But given the Obama administration’s current official discourse focusing on the idea of a flawed system, Brennan’s review will no doubt call for more taxpayer’s money to be poured into the expansion and consolidation of exotic new surveillance, profiling and security powers – from which his own company, TAC, will no doubt reap lucrative dividends.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author and political analyst. He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has taught courses in contemporary history and international relations theory at the University of Sussex. His Doctoral thesis investigated the radicalization processes and dynamics of violent conflict in the context of hierarchical social systems in the modern world. Dr. Ahmed has also published extensively on international security issues, including The London Bombings; The War on Truth; Behind the War on Terror; and The War on Freedom. He has been an expert commentator for BBC News 24, BBC World Today, Al-Jazeera English, among others. He is currently advising the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on engaging British Muslim communities. Visit Dr. Nafeez’ website.