The Terrorists’ Best Weapon: Intelligence Failures - by Ryan Mauro

Almost a decade after 9/11, information to stop al-Qaeda is still stalled.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab received help from Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch in carrying out his attack, but he was also inadvertently helped by, in President Obama’s words, the “human and systemic failure” of the United States’ counter-terrorism apparatus. More and more information is coming to light showing that major vulnerabilities continue to exist leaving the country open to attack.

The government had suspected that Abdulmutallab had ties to terrorists for at least two years. In early August, the CIA later picked up information about an individual called “The Nigerian” who was suspected of meeting with terrorists in Yemen to plan an attack. Then, in November 19, Abdulmutallab’s father, a former minister in Nigeria’s government, went to the U.S. embassy in Abuja and told the CIA about his son’s extremism and ties to Yemen.

The dots were not put together, and to make matters worse, the State Department system to track active visas did not alert the proper officials that Abdulmutallab had a visa to travel to the United States. The next day, when Abdulmutallab’s father’s tip was sent back home, the State Department again did not warn about his visa, enabling him to later travel to the U.S. from Amsterdam on the flight he would try to destroy.

The State Department responded by saying the responsibility to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa fell under the National Counterterrorism Center. An anonymous U.S. intelligence official involved in the investigation reacted by describing the State Department as providing the Center with “very thin information” that didn’t rise to the standard required for a visa to be revoked and have him placed on the no-fly list that would have prevented him from boarding the airliner.

The U.S. should have been aware of Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s tactic of using plastic PETN explosives that can get through metal detectors, as Abdulmutallab used in the Christmas Day plot. The group previously used that same type of bomb on August 28 when it tried to assassinate Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Interior Minister. Although Abdulmutallab made his way past the metal detectors with the PETN-based bomb, other technology could have prevented the explosive from making its way onto the plane. A machine that uses a burst of air to analyze substances, dogs, full-body scanners, or even a typical search with swabs could have detected it.

The plot itself even has roots in an intelligence and political failure. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which declared responsibility for the attempted bombing, has been strengthened by the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Said Ali al-Shihri was released in 2007 and went to Saudi Arabia’s infamous terrorist “rehabilitation” program, and then became the deputy-leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the one that worked with Abdulmutallab. Muhamad Attik al-Harbi is another former prisoner who joined Al-Qaeda’s ranks in Yemen, although he later went back to Saudi Arabia and left the group. Another was killed by the Yemeni military.

Similar intelligence failures allowed Major Nidal Malik Hasan to commit his November 5 shooting attack on Fort Hood in November that killed 13 people. When he was supposed to be giving a lecture about psychiatry, he talked about Islam, saying that infidels would go to hell and suffer punishments like having burning oil poured into their throats. His former classmates say that he stated that he was more loyal to Sharia Law than the U.S. and that he spoke in support of suicide bombings. As a psychiatrist, he spoke to superiors about bringing war crimes charges against some of his patients who served in the military.

Hasan attended the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, at the same time as two of the 911 hijackers when Anwar al-Awlaki was the imam. Al-Awlaki is now known to be an Al-Qaeda recruiter currently residing in Yemen, and he ties these two plots together. He is believed to have given his blessing for the Christmas Day plot, and Hasan exchanged at least 18 emails with him in the six months prior to the attack. After the shooting, al-Awlaki praised Hasan.

The FBI was monitoring al-Awlaki’s communications when they became aware of Hasan, who told al-Awlaki that he was eager to join him in the afterlife. The FBI saw that Hasan was making postings on radical Islamic websites, one of which hailed the effectiveness of suicide bombings and another he argued that they were heroic and did not contradict Islam. The FBI has reportedly found that Hasan had links to other people suspected of being connected to terrorism. Despite all of this information about Hasan’s activities, an investigation was not opened.

The Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas Day airliner plot should serve as reminders that we are only one intelligence failure away from a calamity taking place.