THE attempted Christmas Day sabotage of a Northwest Airline aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Detroit by a Nigerian national brings to focus the holes in aviation security. It comes at a time when there is a distinct deterioration of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the several explosions recently in southern Iraq resulting in many casualties, a major incident on December 30, 2009, at the Forward Operating Base in the Khost province of Afghanistan has unse ttled the United States.
A Taliban suicide bomber, now known to be a person belonging to a Pakistani tribe and possibly a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) informant, walked into the heavily guarded CIA camp without the mandatory security clearance and physical check and blew himself up, killing seven CIA officers and seriously injuring six others. This was the deadliest attack on the CIA since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, in which eight CIA operatives were killed. While this was bad enough for officer morale, what has caused grave concern to the White House is the obvious failure of intelligence agencies that led to the Northwest Airline episode.
The failure was one of collating information that was already available to the agencies, a la 9/11, and seeing the larger picture. A Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdul Muttalab, 23, who had boarded the flight in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, tried to bring about an explosion on board when the aircraft was within minutes of landing in Detroit. He had PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a deadly explosive analogous to nitroglycerin and whose white crystals evade detection if carried in a sealed bag) strapped on to his underwear and detonated it with the help of a syringe containing other chemicals. The alertness of a co-passenger assisted by a member of the plane crew saved the day. The two overpowered the miscreant and doused the minor fire caused by him.
There is now a full-blown controversy over the airline incident. First, it has acquired heavy political overtones, with a frontal attack against the Barack Obama administration by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and a swift response to it from the Presidents aides. Cheney has accused Obama of pretending that there was no war on hand and being soft on terrorism, as evidenced by decisions such as the closure of the Guntanamo Bay detention centre. The White House has retaliated that Cheney and others in his camp seemed to be more intent on finger-pointing rather than finding a solution to the problem. These exchanges, reminiscent of the Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party war of words post-26/11, tell us that politics and modern-day terrorism have become inextricably intertwined, leading to a definite loss of focus on the task in hand. Politicians do not seem to realise that such verbal wrangles only dilute the awesome exercise of rooting out terror from every part of the globe.
As for the intelligence goof-up some basic facts are relevant. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab is a Nigerian citizen who hails from a wealthy family. His father was once chairman of the well-known First Bank PLC. Umar Farouk graduated from the expensive British School in Lome, Togo, which not many can afford. His teachers at school describe him as a dream student and incredibly polite and hardworking.
After leaving Togo, he spent a summer in Yemen studying Arabic. Umar Farouk was later a Mechanical Engineering student (2005-08) at the famous University College London, rated as the fourth best in the world after Harvard, Cambridge and Yale. He was also president of the Universitys Islamic Society, which was devoted, among other activities, to peaceful protests against the West, especially the U.S. The guess is that he got radicalised while he was in London, where he used to be an occasional visitor to the London Muslim Centre. At least three visits there have now been confirmed.
After leaving the University College, in June 2008, Umar Farouk obtained a two-year multiple entry visa from the U.S. Embassy in London. (A very strange and unusual case of grant of visa. None of us can even dream of getting this kind of visa at a location outside India.) Farouk visited the U.S. in August 2008 and attended a $ 2,500-fee-seminar at the AlMaghrib Institute in Houston devoted to the cause of empowering Muslims to carry the message of Allah and His Messenger. (It is difficult to believe that U.S. intelligence agencies do not keep track of participants at the institutes programmes.) Thereafter, he continued his education in Dubai and Yemen. Not much is known of this phase of his life, although in retrospect, there is reason to believe that in Yemen he had received religious indoctrination.
Incidentally, while he was in West Asia, his application for a student visa to return to the United Kingdom was rejected by the British authorities. He called his father in Nigeria to mention this. This itself should have aroused the fathers suspicion of what his son was up to.
Later, Umar Farouk disappeared from his parents radar, and this caused alarm at home. This was why his father reported his sons disappearance and his strong views on religion to Nigerian security officials and the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. This did not, however, prompt a cancellation of his multiple entry U.S. visa, a failure that turned to be grievous on the Christmas Day of 2009.
The only action by the U.S. Embassy was to pass on his name to Washington, where the debate was whether to include Umar Farouk in the list of several thousand suspects or in the much shorter no fly list (about 4,000) that will prevent anyone figuring in it from boarding a flight to the U.S. Ultimately, Farouk was put in the former list. This is why no eyebrows were raised when he boarded the flight in Lagos en route to Amsterdam, after buying the ticket in cash and without checking in any baggage, an unusual thing for an international passenger to do.
Commentators allege several failures on the part of the U.S. intelligence community. Either the CIA representative in the U.S. Embassy in Lagos did not know about the complaint of Farouks father about his son and his fundamentalist views or, there was no CIA man in that Embassy, something that is difficult to swallow. The National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for wiretaps, has also a share of the blame. There was indeed an intercepted voice-to-voice communication last year between Farouk and Anwar-al-Aulaqi, an extremist Yemeni American, which suggested that the latter was facilitating Farouks visit to Yemen. This was overlooked. It was compounded by a lack of appreciation of an intercept that suggested a possible terrorist attack in the U.S. during Christmas season and for which a Nigerian was being groomed.
The National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) set up after 9/11 was supposed to connect all pieces of information and produce an appraisal. This was possibly not done. If NCTC did not rise to the occasion, there needs to be a rational explanation for it. The report that is being submitted to President Obama shortly on the Farouk incident may have an account of why agency after agency failed to keep track of the Nigerian. What is more relevant to us in India is that there is a proposal by our Home Ministry to set up an agency like the NCTC. How will such an agency avoid all the mistakes that its U.S. counterpart has been guilty of?
The recent Headley incident does not inspire confidence in the ability of our agencies to locate characters such as Farouk and keep them away from mischief on Indian soil. The task requires a huge user-friendly database that is updated each day. There is no point in making such database the exclusive preserve of one single agency. All concerned should be able to get in and get out and retrieve or upload information that can be seen by other agencies. It is not difficult to manage such a database after installing strict security features to ensure that no hostile element is able to break in.
The U.S., the U.K. and India need to collaborate strongly in building up the database and making it work effectively. This is the only way in which we can fight terrorism at a time when there are reports of Al Qaeda and the Taliban working in unison. A conference that the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is convening shortly, specifically on how Yemen is fast becoming a breeding ground of international terrorism and what needs to be done in this context, may decide on how to strengthen collaboration between nations that have a huge stake in curbing terrorist activities.