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Obama: Flight 253 Terror Attempt the Result of 'Systemic Failure'

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, via

On Christmas day, Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was the target of a failed bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab 23-year-old Nigerian. The transatlantic flight, traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit, was disrupted during its final descent as Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite expl0sives that were concealed within his underwear. Following this terror scare, President Obama is looking upon US intelligence services with greater scrutiny, describing the incident as the result of a “systemic failure.” In the following week, President Obama ordered an investigation of performance by US intelligence services leading up to the Christmas Day incident. Given the facts surrounding the bombing attempt, investigating potential intelligence failures is warranted.

The events preceding the attempted attack suggest that much could have been done to prevent the young man’s entry into an airplane. Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had repeatedly spoke with officials at the US Embassy in Nigeria, indicating his concern that his son was involved in radical political activity after traveling to Yemen. As a result, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a database operated by the US National Counterterrorism Center. After being added to this 550,000-name list, however, Abdulmutallab was not added to the more selective US No-Fly List. (Part of the review ordered by the President will examine the handling of this information by the various terror warning lists and agencies.) Tuesday after the failed bombing attempt, it was revealed that there was US intelligence regarding Yemeni al-Qaeda members discussing “a Nigerian” who was preparing for such an attack.

Some of the political reactions have been striking, including those of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been a frequent and outspoken critic of President Obama. Following Obama’s initial reaction to the Christmas day event, Cheney criticized the Adminstration response as “low-key.” The former Vice President also argued that this was yet another indication that the President “is trying to pretend we are not at war.” In turn, major news sources have pointed out that Cheney may have been responsible for the release of two former Guantanamo detainees who later trained and provided Abdulmutallab with exploses.

While these partisan political exchanges have been just as predictable as they were during the Bush years, other responses to the attempted attack have been more measured and analytical. On a December 29 edition of NPR’s All Things Considered, Gregory Johnsen, a Near East Studies expert and current Princeton Ph.D. candidate examined the relationships between Abdulmutallab’s Yemeni trainers, and their connection with al-Qaeda. On December 30, the New York Times published an article pointing out that terrorist organizations do not merely recruit from the poor and disenfranchised in the Muslim world; in fact, individuals like Abdulmutallab (not to mention Osama Bin Laden) are from wealthier families, and may have had access to decent educational opportunities. Abdulmutallab himself belonged to a prominent Nigerian family, and graduated from the University College of London with honors.

After setting aside partisan rhetorical distractions, facts about al-Qaeda’s geographic and recruitment trends demonstrate that the Administration’s quick response is crucial. Al-Qaeda is changing, yet similar problems of miscommunication still affect American intelligence services over 8 years after 9/11. A presidential administration brave enough to use this as an opportunity to tackle aggressive, nonpartisan intelligence reform will be crucial for our national security. And, as the Flight 253 bomber himself indicated, there may be more bombing attempts in the future – intelligence sharing should not wait for a successful attempt.


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