America, al-Qaeda and home-made bombs From shoes to soft drinks to underpants was culled and rewriteen from the Economist Magazine .
The attempted bombing of an airliner highlights gaps in intelligence-sharing and airport security
THE charred underpants of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tell the story of a terrorist attack averted only by luck. The 23-year-old son of a prominent Nigerian banker had hidden a fistful of high explosive in a package sewed into the crotch of his underwear. As Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day, with 290 people on board, he covered himself with a blanket and injected a chemical to detonate the explosive. Mr Abdulmutallab succeeded only in starting a fire, which was put out by passengers and the cabin crew as they wrestled him down.
Al-Qaeda’s latest attempt to blow up an America-bound airliner—after Richard Reid’s failed shoe-bomb in 2001, and the arrest in 2006 of Britons planning to destroy several aircraft with liquid explosives in soft-drink bottles—will bring yet more misery for travellers. Security queues immediately lengthened. Despite worries about privacy, there were calls for the introduction of full-body scanners to identify items under clothing that cannot be found with metal-detectors. Some passengers were even being told to stay in their seats, without blankets or even books on their laps, for the last hour of their flight.
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Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen quickly took the credit, hailing Mr Abdulmutallab as a “brother hero” for evading security screening and intelligence monitoring. More attacks were in the works: “With Allah’s permission, we will come to you from where you do not expect.”
Yet the attack should not have been unexpected. Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has been resurgent since it merged a year ago with the remnants of the decimated Saudi franchise to relaunch “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, boosted by the influx of several veterans of Guantánamo Bay. It has moved from attacks against targets in Yemen to a regional agenda, and now to global jihad. A Yemeni preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, exchanged e-mails with Major Nidal Hasan, the American army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in November at a base in Fort Hood, Texas.
The Yemeni branch seems to have pioneered the underpants-bomb in August, when it nearly killed Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister
. Mr Abdulmutallab is said to have obtained the same explosive, known as PETN, in Yemen and carried it undetected as he travelled through Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where he boarded flight 253.
Other chances to foil the attack were missed. Nigerian authorities, and the American embassy in Abuja, were told in November by Mr Abdulmutallab’s father that his son had become an extremist and had disappeared, maybe to Yemen. The younger Mr Abdulmutallab was placed on the least important of America’s four terrorism watch-lists, and he kept his multiple-entry visa to the United States.
In Britain, though, officials said Mr Abdulmutallab had “crossed the radar screen” of MI5
, the domestic intelligence service, for radical links during his time as a mechanical-engineering student (and at one point president of the Islamic Society) at University College London between 2005 and 2008. He was placed on an immigration watch-list in May 2009, after he was denied another student visa for applying to a bogus college.
Why nobody linked all these danger signals is the subject of urgent investigation, and the cause of growing embarrassment for the Obama administration. Janet Napolitano, the homeland-security secretary, declared initially on December 27th that “the system has worked really very, very smoothly”, only to accept the next day that the system had in fact “failed miserably”.
Then Barack Obama twice broke away from his holiday in Hawaii to speak in increasingly blunt terms about the “mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security”. Mr Abdulmutallab was a “known extremist”. The warning from his father had not been effectively distributed in the intelligence system; even without it there were other “bits of information” that should have raised red flags and kept him off planes flying to America. Officials say these “bits” included reports that an unnamed Nigerian was being prepared for an attack, and that al-Qaeda wanted to strike over Christmas. Mr Obama promised “accountability at every level”, and ordered that a preliminary review be completed by December 31st.
The blame game
Many Republicans already argue that Mr Obama is soft on terrorism
; he prefers to denounce “violent extremists” than to refer to George Bush’s “war on terror”. Ms Napolitano has been mocked for talking of “man-caused” disasters—in order, she says, to avoid the politics of fear. The loudest complaints have been prompted by Mr Obama’s promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay (where nearly half the remaining detainees are Yemeni) and the decision to try five suspected terrorists (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged September 11th mastermind) in civilian courts.
It is difficult, though, for Mr Obama’s opponents to make a persuasive case so soon after he decided to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. On his watch American drones and special forces have been busier than ever, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also, it is reported, in Somalia and Yemen. Mr Obama restated that every element of America’s power would be used “to disrupt, to dismantle, and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us—whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the US homeland.”
Intelligence analysts reckon that strikes have weakened al-Qaeda’s “core” leadership in Pakistan’s lawless border region. Perhaps so. But al-Qaeda is adaptable, inventive and is seeking new bases. Joe Lieberman, the hawkish independent senator, says he was warned by an American official in Yemen: “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”