Unconnected dots, yet again, on a terror attempt

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Monday, December 28, 2009

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001. Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger. Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists. To that initial list, we would add a fourth: the disturbingly defensive reaction of the Obama administration.

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by "sniffer" technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful. Mr. Abdulmutallab does not appear to have undergone any such screening in Lagos, where his travel started, or in Amsterdam, where he boarded the Northwest flight for Detroit. Given the continuing threat, it may be necessary to reexamine the need for such intensive screening before flights are cleared for the United States.

More disturbing is the apparent failure of U.S. authorities to respond swiftly and seriously to warnings by Mr. Abdulmutallab's father about his son's "radicalization and associations" with Islamist extremists. As the recently retired chairman of a major Nigerian bank, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab was a credible source; his alert to Nigerian and U.S. Embassy officials in Lagos about his son's increasingly militant views should have been enough to prompt an immediate review of Mr. Mutallab's multiple-entry visa and, at a minimum, to have him flagged for extra security precautions. The notion that there was "insufficient derogatory information available" to do more than add Mr. Abdulmutallab's name to a broad terror watch list, as the administration suggested, is infuriating. This was not an American citizen entitled to due-process protections and the right to enter the country at will. How much more derogatory does information have to be than a father's warning that his son is dabbling in radical Islam?

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be "a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future," Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security. "Internet message boards linked to al-Qaeda are encouraging fighters from across the Islamic world to flock to Yemen," they noted. A successful U.S. counterterrorism strategy will have to devote attention and, more important, resources to states such as Yemen and Somalia if they are not to become the next Afghanistan. The Obama administration appears to understand this reality, as demonstrated by U.S. involvement in recent Yemeni strikes on al-Qaeda forces there.

Finally, it is hardly reassuring to argue, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano did on ABC's "This Week," that "once the incident occurred, the system worked." The attack was averted because of the luck of a faulty detonator and the quick response of alert passengers. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has ordered a review into "did the government do everything that it could have with the information that they had?" The answer to that question seems obvious.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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