One has to await the findings of the enquiries ordered by President Barack Obama and the hearings to be held next month by the Congressional Oversight Committees on the human, systemic and technological failures which enabled Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a 23-year-old Al Qaeda trained Nigerian student, to get into a flight of the North-West Airlines of the US at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam with a concealed explosive device and unsuccessfully try to blow it up as it was about to land at Detroit on December 25, 2009.
The human and systemic failures resulted in his being allowed to board the aircraft at the Schiphol airport despite the fact that his father, a reputed banker of Nigeria, who had reportedly come to know of his son’s presence in Yemen since August,2009, had met separately an official of the US State Department and of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) posted in Nigeria and shared with them his concerns over the religious radicalisation of his son. However, he apparently did not tell them that his son was in Yemen. Had he done so, they might have possibly shown greater concern over the information than they seem to have done.
The officers of the State Department and the CIA did what was expected of them. It has been reported that the State Department official immediately conveyed the information to his headquarters in Washington DC and the CIA officer to his headquarters . Both the headquarters passed the information on to the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) under the Director, National Intelligence.
While the information conveyed by the father of the Nigerian was thus promptly shared by everyone who was in receipt of it with all those responsible for counter-terrorism in Washington DC, the failure still occurred because none of those in receipt of the information subjected it to an action-oriented analysis and assessment in order to decide what action was called for on that information. Did it call for the cancellation of a two-year visa issued to the student by the US Embassy in London in June 2008? Did it call for an advisory to the North-West Airlines and to the security authorities at the Schiphol airport not to let him board the flight and to subject him to a special physical security check?
It would appear that neither the State Department nor the CIA nor the NCTC posed these questions to each other and examined what follow-up action was called for. All they did was to add the information to their database of 550000 names of persons who had come to adverse notice but against whom the evidence was not strong enough to warrant non-issue or the cancellation of the visa and/or the denial of permission to board a flight to the US.
The lesson: Information alone serves only a limited purpose unless it is subjected to an action oriented analysis and assessment followed by joint action by all concerned. The absence of joint action oriented analysis and assessment of terrorism-related information was one of the major deficiencies in the US system pointed out by the National Commission which went into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland. One of the reasons the NCTC was set up in 2004 was to address this deficiency. Despite the NCTC being in position for five years now, this deficiency has again come to notice.
The second lesson relates to the need for proper scrutiny of a visa application. This has been repeatedly stressed by counter-terrorism experts since 9/11. Despite this, one keeps coming across instances of poor scrutiny. The poor scrutiny of the visa applications of David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) by the Indian Consulate-General in Chicago enabled them to obtain a visa for coming to India and prepare the ground for the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Similarly, a poor scrutiny of the visa application of Abdulmuttalab by the US visa officer would appear to have resulted in his obtaining a US visa despite his reputation as someone sympathetic to the Taliban. Around the same time, he had applied to the British for a renewal of his student visa to enable him to continue studying in the UK. The British visa officer, who scrutinised his application, immediately noticed that he had given a false particular about his educational institution and rejected his request.
The third lesson relates to the inadequacies of the technological means presently available to the physical security officials which come in the way of their detecting explosive devices concealed in private parts of the body. In the past, narcotics and gold smugglers used to evade detection by concealing the narcotics or gold in their private parts. Now, terrorists have started doing so with explosive devices. How to deal with this? This is a question needing urgent attention by physical security experts and scientists.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.