Underpants Bomber Inspires New Counterterrorist 'Pursuit Team'

In the wake of the failed Christmas Day underpants bombing attempt, the government's National Counterterrorism Center has set up a new "pursuit team." Its main objective: to spot and pull together fragmentary and inchoate threat information like the scraps of information the government had gathered but failed to assemble before the Dec. 25 close call.

The NCTC, which was created after 9/11 to improve intelligence analysis and distribution, came under predictable criticism in Congress and the media for not anticipating the Dec. 25 attack. White House and congressional investigators have confirmed that the government was in possession of information that, if properly assembled, might have alerted authorities to stop accused underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Nevertheless, the relevant scraps of information were buried beneath mountains of unrelated data, and the extent of that intelligence didn't become apparent until after Abdulmutallab's arrest.

Although sharing of counterterrorism information has improved considerably since 9/11, investigators found that NCTC analysts were hampered by the lack of a Google-style capability to make rapid searches of raw intelligence reports across a wide spectrum of government databases. As things stand, a thorough search could involve accessing as many as 80 databases through 13 networks.

While long-term work continues on improving the center's data-search strength, the center's director, Michael E. Leiter, has promised to boost the NCTC's puzzle-solving efforts as well by creating special teams to ferret out obscure clues about possible plots and plotters that analysts carrying out more routine assignments might not have noticed. "We have dedicated teams that don't have any responsibility for producing intelligence, but simply for following up on these small leads," Leiter told a House committee hearing in January.

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At a ceremony on Wednesday for the fifth anniversary of the intelligence czar's office, an NCTC analyst gave a brief talk, describing his pursuit team as a place where smart people try to solve extremely tough problems. Speaking with reporters at the National Intelligence Director's northern Virginia headquarters after the ceremony, the current intelligence czar, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, spoke about extremist agitators in the Internet age. Blair described the American-born jihadist imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who seems to have inspired both Abdulmutallab and accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, as "a pretty good model" of the threat. Awlaki exchanged online messages with Hasan, and may have been in direct contact with Abdulmutallab before the Christmas attempt. U.S. experts formerly viewed Awlaki as a spiritual guide for jihadists, rather than as an active terrorist plotter, but counterterrorism officials concluded after the underpants incident that he had become operationally involved in attack planning. He's believed to be hiding out in a remote tribal area of Yemen under the protection of fierce local tribesmen, and although he is a U.S. citizen, the Obama administration has authorized security forces, including the CIA, to kill him if they can find him.

Underpants Bomber Inspires New Counterterrorist 'Pursuit Team' | U.S.