Plane suspect was listed in terror database after father alerted U.S. officials

By Dan Eggen, Karen DeYoung and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A01

A Nigerian man charged Saturday with attempting to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day was listed in a U.S. terrorism database last month after his father told State Department officials that he was worried about his son's radical beliefs and extremist connections, officials said.

The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was added to a catch-all terrorism-related database when his father, a Nigerian banker, reported concerns about his son's "radicalization and associations" to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a senior administration official said. Abdulmutallab was not placed on any watch list for flights into the United States, however, because there was "insufficient derogatory information available" to include him, another administration official said.

Abdulmutallab was granted a two-year tourist visa by the U.S. Embassy in London in June 2008. He used the visa to travel previously to the United States at least twice, officials said.

On Friday, Abdulmutallab, 23, was subdued by passengers and crew members onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 after he allegedly ignited an explosive device that set afire his pants leg and part of the airplane during preparations to land in Detroit.

The incident marks the latest apparent attempt by terrorists to bring down a U.S. aircraft through the use of an improvised weapon, and set in motion urgent security measures that disrupted global air travel during the frenetic holiday weekend.

The case also reignited a partisan debate within Washington over whether the Obama administration was doing enough to guard against terrorist attacks after the shootings last month at Fort Hood, Tex., and other incidents.

Passengers on international flights bound Saturday for the United States were required to undergo more stringent searches before boarding and were ordered to remain glued in their seats for the final hour of many flights. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said domestic passengers may notice additional security measures in coming days, but she did not specify them.

Abdulmutallab was charged Saturday in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan with attempting to destroy an aircraft and with placing a destructive device onboard a plane, each of which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman informed Abdulmutallab of the charges during a hearing at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, where he is being treated at the burn unit.

The suspect was rolled into a conference room in a wheelchair for the hearing. Asked whether he understood the charges against him, he replied, "Yes, I do." When a federal prosecutor asked how he was doing, Abdulmutallab replied, "I feel better."

The suspect allegedly told FBI agents after his arrest that he had received training and explosive materials from al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Yemen, a claim that U.S. law enforcement officials were still attempting to verify Saturday. The FBI said the device strapped to Abdulmutallab contained PETN, or pentaerythritol, which is the same plastic explosive used by al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid in his December 2001 attempt to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner by igniting a homemade bomb in his shoe.

A senior administration official said Abdulmutallab, who had studied engineering at University College London, was issued a two-year U.S. tourist visa in June 2008 in London and did not raise any red flags during screening before boarding Northwest Flight 253 at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, one of the most heavily secured air facilities in the world.

Administration officials acknowledged Saturday that Abdulmutallab's name was added in November to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which contains about 550,000 individuals and is maintained by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center. TIDE is a catch-all list into which all terrorist-related information is sent.

Some, but not all, information from TIDE is transferred to the FBI-maintained Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB), from which consular, border and airline watch lists are drawn. The Transportation Security Administration has a "no-fly" list of about 4,000 people who are prohibited from boarding any domestic or U.S.-bound aircraft. A separate list of about 14,000 "selectees" require additional scrutiny but are not banned from flying.

Abdulmutallab's name never made it past the TIDE database. "A TIDE record on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was created in November 2009," one administration official said, but "there was insufficient information available on the subject at that time to include him in the TSDB or its 'no fly' or 'selectee' lists."

Several top Republicans criticized the administration's approach to counterterrorism, saying the government had not pieced together warning signs in recent cases, including the slayings of 13 people at Fort Hood, allegedly by a Muslim soldier. "I think the administration is finally recognizing that they got this terrorism thing all wrong," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee and a state gubernatorial candidate. "I think we came very, very close to losing that plane last night."

After being briefed by federal authorities, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Abdulmutallab did not undergo body scans that might have helped detect the explosive material when he went through security at airports in Nigeria and Amsterdam.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, released a statement saying he was "troubled by several aspects" of the case, including the visit by Abdulmutallab's father to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

Democrats in the House and Senate vowed to hold hearings in January but also urged caution in jumping to conclusions. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said a federal official briefed lawmakers about "strong suggestions of a Yemen-al-Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace."

Administration officials said President Obama is seeking accountability in the incident, although he has not demanded any sort of special review. He is getting detailed briefings on the facts of the case and the airport security changes while on vacation in Hawaii, the officials said.

One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Abdulmutallab received his 2008 tourist visa from the U.S. Embassy in London. "We interviewed him, and his name was run against the watch list maintained by [the Department of Homeland Security] and the FBI," the official said. "There was no indication of any derogatory information. There is every indication that whatever radicalization took place occurred recently."

In a new emergency order effective until Wednesday, TSA is requiring that all passengers bound for the United States undergo a "thorough pat-down" at boarding gates, concentrating on the upper legs and torso. All carry-on baggage also should be inspected, focusing on syringes with powders or liquids, TSA said.

In addition, passengers must remain seated and may not access carry-on baggage for the final hour before the landing or hold any personal item on their laps.

The extraordinary steps came as former senior U.S. officials spoke in unusually blunt terms about the apparent failure of aviation security measures to detect a common military explosive allegedly brought on board.

Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary from 2005 to 2009, said terrorists appear to have exploited the natural inhibition of screeners to conduct overly intrusive searches, and he renewed calls for widespread expansion of whole-body imaging scanners that use radio waves or X-rays to reveal objects beneath a person's clothes. Chertoff said the government has sought to expand use of imaging scanners, but privacy advocates and Congress have raised objections.

"This plot is an example of something we've known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you've got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren't easy to get at," Chertoff said. "It's either pat-downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven't figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out."

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