Friday, January 8, 2010

On Abdulmutallab: The Dots Were Never Connected

Wayward Polka Dots ATCImage by Mel's ATCs via Flickr

The White House released yesterday the preliminary review of the December 25 attempted terrorist attack of flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Excerpted below.

The preliminary White House review of the events that led to the attempted December 25 attack highlights human errors and a series of systematic breakdowns failed to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he was able to detonate an explosive device onboard flight 253. The most significant failures and shortcomings that led to the attempted terror attack fall into three broad categories:

  • A failure of intelligence analysis, whereby the CT community failed before December 25 to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the u.s. Government related to an emerging terrorist plot against the U.S. Homeland organized by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and to Mr. Abdulmutallab, the individual terrorist;
  • A failure within the CT community, starting with established rules and protocols, to assign responsibility and accountability for follow up of high priority threat streams, run down all leads, and track them through to completion; and
  • Shortcomings of the watchlisting system, whereby the CT community failed to identify intelligence within u.S. government holdings that would have allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to be watchlisted, and potentially prevented from boarding an aircraft bound for the United States.

The most significant findings of our preliminary review are:

  • The U.S. Government had sufficient information prior to the attempted December 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot-i.e., by identifying Mr. Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP and potentially preventing him from boarding flight 253.
  • The Intelligence Community leadership did not increase analytic resources working on the full AQAP threat.
  • The watchlisting system is not broken but needs to be strengthened and improved, as evidenced by the failure to add Mr. Abdulmutallab to the No Fly watchlist.
  • A reorganization of the intelligence or broader counterterrorism community is not required to address problems that surfaced in the review, a fact made clear by countless other successful efforts to thwart ongoing plots.


Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was included in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the failure to include Mr. Abdulmutallab in a watchlist is part of the overall systemic failure. Pursuant to the IRTPA, NCTC serves "as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups.,,4 As such, NCTC consolidates all information on known and suspected international terrorists in the Terrorist Identities Datarnart Environment. NCTC then makes this data available to the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which reviews nominations for inclusion in the master watchlist called the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The TSC provides relevant extracts to each organization with a screening mission.

Hindsight suggests that the evaluation by watchlisting personnel of the information contained in the State cable nominating Mr. Abdulmutallab did not meet the minimum derogatory standard to watchlist. Watchlisting would have required all of the available information to be fused so that the derogatory information would have been sufficient to support nomination to be watchlisted in the Terrorist Screening Database. Watchlist personnel had access to additional derogatory information in databases that could have been connected to Mr. Abdulmutallab, but that access did not result in them uncovering the biographic information that would have been necessary for placement on the watchlist. Ultimately, placement on the No FIy List would have been required to keep Mr. Abdulmutallab off the plane inbound for the U.S. Homeland.


Mr. Abdulmutallab possessed a U.S. visa, but this fact was not correlated with the concerns ofMr. Abdulmutallab's father about Mr. Abdulmutallab's potential radicalization. A misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab's name initially resulted in the State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa. A determination to revoke his visa, however, would have only occurred ifthere had been a successful integration of intelligence by the CT community, resulting in his being watchlisted.

Read the whole thing here.

A couple of senior State Department officials also conducted a background briefing yesterday following the release of the WH security review. You can read it here

I’m sure this is not the end of it. There will be hearings on Capitol Hill.  This being an election year, well -- who knows what surprises are in the cookie jar for us.  But I expect we’ll see some of the following officials over State’s role on this and the visa angle before too long.

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