A young man checks in at the airport in Nigeria with a ticket to America bought with cash, and only carry-on luggage. More than a month before, his father, a wealthy banker, has visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, worried that his son has gone missing and may be hanging around with Yemeni-based extremists. The National Security Agency has picked up intelligence that Al Qaeda in Yemen is planning to use an unnamed Nigerian for a terror attack on the United States. The man has been denied a visa to enter Britain, but he has a valid multiple-entry visa for the United States.
In the movie version, lights would be flashing on computer screens in a darkened room in a nondescript building in the suburbs of northern Virginia, and intelligence officials would be on the phone asking urgent questions about the young man. In real life, nothing of the sort happened. There is, indeed, a plain, unmarked building outside of Washington where analysts of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) sift through intelligence, looking for threatening signs and patterns. Their operations room even looks like something out of the movies. It was designed with help from the Walt Disney Co., according to intelligence officials involved with the planning. But when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas morning with a bomb sewn into his underpants, the U.S. government did nothing to stop him. Possibly the worst terrorist strike against the U.S. since 9/11 was averted only by luck and the bravery of other passengers and the airplane's crew.
Officials in the intelligence community are quick to point out that the facts always look clearer in hindsight, and that they are overwhelmed with false leads and sheer noise every hour of every day. But the breakdown in the system may be worse than has been publicly acknowledged. In the months before the Christmas attack, there were many warning signs coming out of Yemen. In early October, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric based in Yemen, posted a provocative message on his English-language Web site: "COULD YEMEN BE THE NEXT SURPRISE OF THE SEASON?" Al-Awlaki seemed to hint at an upcoming attack that would make Yemen "the single most important front of jihad in the world." Al-Awlaki, who once had contacts with two of the 9/11 hijackers, is the same imam who had been exchanging e-mails with the U.S. Army psychiatrist who later killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. He is a now a central figure in the investigation into the Detroit attack: prior to the Christmas incident, the National Security Agency had intercepted communications between a phone used by al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells NEWSWEEK. The official says al-Awlaki may also have been involved in other intercepted communications indicating that Al Qaeda was planning to use an unidentified "Nigerian" in an attack over the holiday season.
The same month that al-Awlaki was predicting a "surprise," John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, received an alarming briefing at the White House from Muhammad bin Nayef, Brennan's Saudi counterpart. Nayef had just survived an assassination attempt by a Qaeda operative using a novel method: the operative had flown in from the Saudi-Yemeni border region with a bomb hidden in his underwear. The Saudi was concerned because he "didn't think [U.S. officials] were paying enough attention" to the growing threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen, said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the briefing. (The official, like others quoted in this article, did not want to be named talking about sensitive information.) Intelligence experts now strongly suspect that Nayef's attacker and Abdulmutallab had the same bomb maker in Yemen. Altogether, portents of trouble coming from Yemen seem to have been gathering in the months and days before Christmas. Yet on Dec. 22, at a White House Situation Room briefing, a document presented to the president titled "Key Homeland Threats" did not mention Yemen, according to a senior administration official. He would not say whether Yemen was discussed at the briefing.
Ordinary Americans—familiar with Google, Twitter, and search engines that seem to have no trouble learning all about their personal lives—are bound to wonder why the federal government, years and many billions of dollars after 9/11, couldn't connect some pretty big dots. "A systemic failure has occurred," said President Obama, getting ahead of the pack. He promised to hold officials "accountable." Congress will investigate, and lawmakers—possibly the same ones who in the past have complained about undue travel restrictions and invasions of privacy—will demand a better system.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab grew up in luxury, in the walled courtyard of his family home in Nairobi, and when he went to college, he lived not in a dorm but in an apartment his parents maintained in a posh London neighborhood. But as the 16th and youngest child of his father's two wives, he may not have gotten much parental attention. He was sent off to a British-style boarding school for the children of diplomats and rich West African businessmen, where Islamic boys were supposed to sing Christmas carols. Like most well-to-do teens, he worried about college admissions, fretting over a low score on his SAT in an Internet chat room. He also worried about girls. "Lowering his gaze" like a proper Islamic boy when a girl passed by didn't seem to help, nor did fasting, he complained. By the winter of his senior year he was in a deep funk. "I have no one to speak too [sic]," wrote "Farouk1986" on the popular "Islamic Forum" at Gawaher.com. "No one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And I think loneliness leads me to other problems." More pious than most boys, he was called "Alfa," local coinage for an Islamic scholar, and also, more cruelly, "Pope."
Graduating from high school in 2005, he was cheered by a trip to Sana, the capital of Yemen, to take a course in Arabic. "It's just great," he gushed about the city's shopping and local cuisine (though he was glad to find Pizza Hut and KFC). At Britain's University College London, he does not appear to have studied very hard (he was getting a degree in mechanical engineering), but he became head of the college's Islamic Society. He organized a war-on-terror week, with various Islamists and British left-wing speakers invited to denounce American oppression and human-rights violations in the Middle East. But such rhetoric was hardly unusual on British campuses. On a Web site, Abdulmutallab justified killing in the name of jihad, and ranted against corrupt Saudi princes. Still, he did not appear to have been a fiery radical in person. His classmates described him as quiet, humble—"if he walked into a room, you wouldn't know he was there," said Qasim Rafiq, his successor as head of the Islamic Society, in an interview with The New York Times. Of course, the ability to move about unnoticed is a prime characteristic of a good spy.
It is not known how or when he was recruited by Al Qaeda. Terrorist recruiters peruse Web sites, and Abdulmutallab's pro-jihad sentiments, his engineering studies, his familiarity with the West, and—perhaps most of all—his ability to travel to America did not go unnoticed in the online netherworld. He went to an Islamic religious gathering in Houston on a U.S. visa in 2008, spent some time in Dubai, and—fatefully—enrolled in language school in Yemen in August 2009.
Yemen had been a jihadist hotbed before 9/11—terrorists tried to blow up the USS Cole, an American Navy destroyer, in October 2000. And it is fast becoming a base of operations for a Qaeda offshoot with big ambitions. In 2007 a Guantánamo detainee named Said al-Shihri was released and sent to Saudi Arabia, where he went through an "art-therapy rehabilitation" program to free himself from extremism. The cure did not take—he came straight to Yemen and joined up with some former lieutenants of Osama bin Laden to create Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was this group that sent the suicide bomber to kill Nayef, the Saudi intelligence official. The bomber stumbled on his way in and blew himself up; Nayef was slightly wounded. In October 2009, AQAP published an article in its online magazine invoking the martyrdom of "Abu al-Kheir"—Nayef's would-be assassin.
Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent retired banker and former Nigerian finance minister, appeared at the U.S. Embassy in the city of Abuja on Nov. 19 to tell American officials that his son had vanished. He worried that the young man had been spending time with extremists from Yemen, but he said nothing about terrorism, according to two U.S. counterterrorism officials. He wanted the Americans to help him get his son back. These sorts of "walk-ins" are far from unusual in American embassies around the world; usually, it's a wife or husband who wants help tracking down a missing spouse. The New York Times interviewed a cousin of Abdulmutallab who said the father had described his son as a "security threat," after examining text messages from his son in Yemen.
Senior embassy officials, including a top CIA officer, duly held a meeting the next day and sent a report back to Washington. The report was routinely entered in a vast database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a collection of more than half a million names, kept by the NCTC. But the NCTC analysts did not do much, if anything, with the information. They did not check to see if Abdulmutallab had a valid American visa—a seemingly certain red flag. They did not check to see if he had a British visa. In fact, his application for a British visa had been denied under a policy that weeds out applications for entry visas to study in language schools. Last week the British somewhat defensively said the information was available, had the Americans asked, but that British authorities did not notify Washington because Abdulmutallab's visa application had been rejected to stop immigration fraud, not for national-security reasons.
Collectively, the U.S. government had its head in the sand. The FBI had no representative at the meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, in the center of the country—the FBI maintains an attaché only in Lagos, on the southern coast. The CIA did not tell the FBI about Abdulmutallab. Under the so-called Visa Viper program, the State Department received the report about the meeting with Abdulmutallab's father, but it did not revoke the son's visa. Rather, it made a note to closely scrutinize any future application to renew the visa. Likewise, the NCTC determined that there was no "reasonable suspicion" to conclude that Abdulmutallab was a terrorist, so he wasn't put on the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center watch list of some 400,000 names, or counted as one of 13,000 people who require extra screening before getting on a plane, or one of 4,000 names who are on the "no fly" list—banned from getting on a plane at all. It's all a matter of legal thresholds. For reasons of privacy and convenience, the airlines and civil-liberties groups have pressed the government not to be overexpansive in its definition of a security risk.
The NCTC was set up to make sure that the various American agencies and intelligence services better shared information in the wake of 9/11, which might have been averted if the CIA and FBI had been in better communication about the Qaeda hijackers entering the country. But for reasons still not adequately explained, no one seems to have noticed other red flags in the intelligence system. The intelligence community had already picked up the intercepts indicating that Al Qaeda was planning to use a Nigerian for an attack on America. Other intercepts suggested a terror attack out of Yemen at Christmas, though officials believed the likely target would be somewhere in the Middle East, not in the United States. Finally, there were the intercepts between Abdulmutallab and the phone (and possibly a computer) used by al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric. Such contact would seem to cry out for attention—although an intelligence official said the intercepts did not indicate Abdulmutallab's full name.
After the billions spent to beef up homeland security since 9/11, it's not unreasonable to expect the government would have the sort of search engines for its own internal databases that seem routine in the private sector. A counterterrorism official said that such Google-type programs do exist—but added that they are expensive, are hard to use, and have not been widely implemented by intel agencies. A frustrating stumbling block: different agencies have different levels of secrecy, thwarting communication between them.
Former officials were scathing in their judgments of the intelligence community's performance. "The system should have been lighting up like a Christmas tree," said Ali Soufan, a former senior FBI counterterrorism agent who spent years tracking Qaeda suspects in Yemen (and often battled with the CIA over information sharing). Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush's chief homeland-security adviser, put most of the blame on the analysts at the NCTC for not pushing—pinging the system—for more information on Abdulmutallab. "It was NCTC's responsibility to connect the dots, and ask for additional dots if they don't have enough," she said. Instead, the original report about the visit of Abdulmutallab's father appears to have been dropped in a "dead-letter file." An intelligence official responded to the criticism: "While this is the season for second-guessing and finger-pointing, I have not seen anything to come from the meeting in Abuja that suddenly would have rocketed Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list. You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family's wealthy lifestyle. That alone makes him neither Saint Francis nor a dead-eyed killer. Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer, as everyone does now."
The airlines and airport security do not appear to have been very vigilant. When Abdulmutallab checked in for his flight from Nigeria to Detroit via Amsterdam on Christmas Eve, he showed a ticket paid for with cash ($2,831) and checked no bags. Seem suspicious? No one raised any questions. In Amsterdam, the airport has begun installing full-body image scanners that might have detected the explosives sewn into Abdulmutallab's underwear. But Dutch authorities told NEWSWEEK that the American government did not want U.S.-bound passengers to pass through the intrusive scanners, apparently for privacy reasons.
As the Airbus 330 carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew members began its descent into Detroit on Christmas Day, witnesses say Abdulmutallab got up from his seat by the window in the economy section and went to the bathroom. He stayed there for 20 minutes. When he returned, he told his seatmate that his stomach had been bothering him. He put a blanket over his lap and tried to inject chemicals from a syringe into a packet containing three ounces of explosive powder that he had retrieved from his underpants. The bomb should have been powerful enough to blow a hole in the plane. But instead passengers heard a popping sound, like a firecracker, and saw flames. Passengers yelled, and some tried to get up and run to the back of the plane. One passenger seated in the same row, but on the far side of the plane, jumped up and scrambled across the seats to wrestle with the man. He shook the half-melted syringe from Abdulmutallab's hand and started ripping off his pants, looking for more explosives. Flight attendants appeared and sprayed both men with fire extinguishers. The entire drama took less than a minute.
"The whole plane was screaming," Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch filmmaker who tackled Abdulmutallab, recalled in an interview with CNN. "But the suspect, he didn't say a word." Abdulmutallab did not resist; he seemed limp, inert. Later, when a flight attendant asked him what had been in his pocket, he answered, "Explosive device."
Though badly burned, Abdulmutallab was well enough to talk to the FBI. He's been charged with trying to blow up Flight 253 and a hearing has been set for Jan. 8. More recently, he has retained a lawyer, likely making his cooperation limited, at least for a time. The Feds will want to extract as much intelligence as possible and as quickly as possible. AQAP will want to try again. Last week its Web site posted a statement praising Abdulmutallab as a hero who "penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world" and "reached his target." AQAP proudly proclaimed that "the mujahedeen brothers in the manufacturing department" had supplied the explosives, "though a technical error" led to the "incomplete detonation."
The Obama administration's efforts to put a positive spin on the near miss were cringe-making. White House Communications Director Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went on the Sunday shows to reassure the jittery public, but Napolitano got a little carried away, saying the "system has worked really very, very smoothly over the past several days." When the hooting began, she insisted that she was being quoted out of context—that she meant the system had worked after the bombing attempt.
A senior administration official said that Obama was "extremely angry" when he learned how much information intelligence agencies had collected about Abdulmutallab before the bombing. "We're not talking about information that had just been developed in the 24 hours prior to Christmas," said the official. "This was information that had been in the system for months." Obama was already irritated to learn of communications between al-Awlaki and Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, that the FBI had failed to act on—messages that are sure to provoke public outrage when they become public.
The "forever war," as President Bush called it, goes on. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said: "Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war." Obama had already authorized a covert war in Yemen. When Yemeni jets bombed Qaeda targets on Dec. 17 and 24, the United States supplied intelligence, missiles, and military support. American spies and special forces are on the ground, assisting the Yemenis. They are looking, no doubt, for that "manufacturing department" before "the mujahedeen brothers" can make a martyr out of some other confused and lonely young man.