EXCLUSIVE: Even Suspect Who Attacked Danish Cartoonist Was Not Immediately Placed on U.S. 'No Fly' List

A procedure used to place suspects on U.S. terrorism "watch lists" is so rigorous that even a Kenyan man who tried to murder a Danish cartoonist on New Year's Day with a hatchet and a knife was not immediately added onto a "no fly" list maintained by the U.S. government, according to a U.S. national-security official.

The official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that before his name was added to a U.S. no-fly list─consisting of about 4,000 people banned from boarding U.S.-bound airplanes─the case of Muhidin Gelle, who broke into the house of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard on Jan. 1 and tried to kill him, had to be reviewed by U.S. officials to ensure that it met official standards for inclusion in such a database. This meant that even though Gelle was already under arrest in Denmark, having been caught and shot by Danish police as he reportedly threatened them with his axe, there was a lag in adding him to the U.S. aviation blacklist, while American officials made sure that his behavior met the appropriate standard. (After his arrest for the attack on Westergaard, officials in Kenya also reportedly linked Gelle to an earlier plot to attack Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while she was touring Africa.)

Historically, the criteria U.S. officials have used for deciding whether a suspect should be added to the U.S. no-fly list have included the existence of intelligence or evidence indicating that there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person has been or is about to become involved in terrorism, and a requirement that there be even more specific information that a suspect was involved in possible plots to attack airplanes.

The standards the government uses in deciding whether or not to list suspects on U.S. government terrorism watch lists are expected to come under thorough review by both the Obama administration and Congress in the wake of the Westergaard attack and the alleged failed Christmas Day attempted attack on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man whom U.S. authorities now believe was rigged up with a bomb in his underpants by a Yemen-based affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Abdulmutallab's name was entered into a classified intelligence data base called TIDE after his father in late November visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to express concern that his son had fallen in with Islamic "extremists" in Yemen.

However, because officials believed that the father's statement did not constitute "reasonable suspicion" that his son had become involved with terrorists, the junior Abdulmutallab's name was never put on the U.S. no-fly list. Nor was it added to two other unclassified U.S. terrorism "watch lists" used by the Department of Homeland Security to vet transatlantic passenger lists before planes take off for the U.S. from foreign airports. As we reported last week, Homeland Security officials only consulted the classified database containing information on Abdulmutallab after his flight had taken off for Detroit from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

NEWSWEEK has also learned from multiple government sources that following Abdulmutallab's father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab's visit to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, at least one CIA official recommended that Umar Abdulmutallab's name should be placed on an an unspecified U.S. terrorist watch list. The CIA official's recommendation does not appear to have been mentioned in a report the White House released last week on the government's handling of pre-Christmas intelligence information about Abdulmutallab.

The elder Mutallab told U.S. Embassy officials in late November that his son had disappeared after falling in with Islamic "extremists" based in Yemen. Soon after meeting with the father, a CIA officer told embassy colleagues that based on the father's information, he thought that Umar Abdulmutallab should be placed on a U.S. terror watchlist, according to three US national security officials, who also asked for anonymity. In the wake of the embassy discussion, one of the US officials said, someone at CIA made an initial approach to one of the government units which manages terror watchlists─believed to be either the National Counterterrorism Center, which is part of the Office of the National Intelligence Director, or the Terrorist Screening Center, which is run by the FBI.

Not long after Abdulmutallab's father visited the embassy, the son's name, and a summary of the father's allegations, was entered in TIDE, a classified database maintained by NCTC which contains raw intelligence reporting on about 550,000 terrorism suspects. Even though CIA personnel in Abuja sent their own report on what Abdulmutallab had told the embassy to CIA headquarters the TIDE database entry on him appears to have been based on a separate message sent by the embassy into a State Department visa-management database known as Visa Viper. (The CIA cable was entered into a highly classified data base available to NCTC personnel, but it was not specifically flagged for the attention of NCTC analysts.)

But apart from the TIDE database entry and the seemingly routine inquiry from the CIA to one of the watch-listing units, government officials have said that no other effort appears to have been made to follow up on the Nigeria-based CIA official's recommendation that Abdulmutallab be placed on some kind of government watch list which could have subjected him to extra airport screening, or even a flight ban. Arguably, by entering Abdulmutallab's name in TIDE, officials did place him in the broadest-based U.S. government compendium of information on terrorism suspects, even if this database is cumbersome for officials who screen airline passengers to use and is almost never used to stop passengers from boarding U.S.-bound flights. Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, affirmed to NEWSWEEK: "The agency did not propose that he be placed on either the selectee or no-fly list."

U.S. officials say that because the ins and outs of watch-listing up until now have been complicated─and deliberately so, in order to protect the civil rights of passengers and to ensure that names are not added to watch lists casually or indiscriminately─the CIA recommendation from Abuja that Abdulmutallab be placed on an unspecified watch list doesn't add up to much. "This whole thing's basically a red herring. Somebody overseas, who was not a specialist, might have thought the guy should be watch-listed. The information from Nigeria, according to people who review such things full time, did not meet the government's criteria for inclusion on the selectee or no-fly list. None of the experts anywhere, to my knowledge, disputed that judgment, then or now. It wasn't even close, as there was nothing about a specific threat or even membership in a terrorist group," argued one U.S. intelligence official

The official added: "Take a look at the requirements. It's not easy to get someone on the more restrictive lists. That's how our government wanted it. Even with that nut in Denmark, the one who threatened a cartoonist with a hatchet, the process had to be followed. It wasn't automatic, and, frankly, people would be outraged if it were. The information has to meet certain standards. You can't just say, 'Hey, put this clown on the no-fly list.' You have to make a case. And that's just as it should be."