Another would-be terrorist, this time a young man from Nigeria, joins with a number of others who, since 911, have been apprehended either planning or carrying out actions they apparently hoped would result in deaths of innocent Americans. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to start a fire or ignite explosive chemicals sewn into his underpants while in a coach seat on a Delta Airlines passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. All he succeeded in burning was his leg, his trousers, a blanket he was using to cover up his bush league attempt at terrorism, and some other nearby flammable materials.
This most recent member of the Terrorist Brainiac Hall of Fame joins earlier inductee Richard Reid, who tried to ignite a “shoe bomb” with a pack of matches on a flight to the United States back in late 2001. Other infamous members of this growing fraternity of would-be terrorists, none of whom can claim membership in MENSA, include Iyman Faris, the idiot who planned to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with an acetylene torch in 2003; and Jose Padilla, who supposedly planned to personally construct a “dirty bomb” to wreck havoc on a US city back in 2002, but against whom the federal government had so little evidence it eventually was forced to drop that charge and settle for something far less serious.
A couple of things are obvious from this latest thwarted terrorist action. First, these guys are not rocket scientists. Trying to discreetly mix two volatile chemical together in your underwear in just the right amount to cause an explosion, all the while sitting in a cramped coach-class airline seat under a blanket so you can’t see what you’re doing, is not a process someone of even average intelligence would chose to undertake. Yet young Mr. Abdulmutullab apparently went to Yemen to be trained in the ways of terrorists, and this Rube Goldberg attempt at exploding an airliner was all he got for his money. If he hasn’t already demanded a refund of whatever he paid for this “training,” he might want to do so.
Second, while these terrorist wannabes must be taken seriously because occasionally they get lucky (sometimes with truly tragic consequences such as on Septermber 11, 2001), we must do a far better job of focusing on the basics of the intelligence business, and do so consistently. The “basics” start with gathering good, accurate intelligence information from various sources and methods. The process should continue by funneling that intelligence through a network of analysis and evaluation , and then properly and timely disseminating it to those who need it to both set policy and act on it. In the Abdulmutallab incident, our terrorism defensive system apparently stopped at the first step — gathering the intelligence. It became clear shortly after Abdulmutallab’s arrest that his name already had been flagged as at least a potential terrorist to both US and British authorities. The fact that his name never made it to the persons who could have stopped him from boarding the US-flagged aircraft in Amsterdam, reveals an obvious flaw, if not a series of flaws, in our database of known and suspected terrorists.
It’s not as if we don’t have an awful lot of names in the database — in fact, at some one million names the problem is that the list is too large and unwieldy. The list needs to be refined, revised, and updated. Furthermore — and this will be made easier once the first step of refining and updating the terrorist watch list database is accomplished — a simple, direct and secure system of making sure the names on the list are directed into the hands of the appropriate persons within and outside government, has to be put in place. This includes proper intelligence-sharing with other governments with which we work to ensure commercial air travel safety. We’ve been working at sharing foreign intelligence with our allies and other trustworthy governments since World War Two ended; but apparently we haven’t mastered it yet. This is unforgiveable.
If, as seems obvious. it is determined that mistakes were made in this instance, heads should roll (though they rarely do). If tough and quick disciplinary steps are taken, this would do more to sharpen our capabilities to execute a sound terrorist intelligence database plan better and quicker than appropriating millions of new dollars on fancy equipment.
Finally, let’s stop the knee-jerk measures our government implements after each thwarted incident. Nothing signals to other would-be terrorists that they are accomplishing at least part of their goal, than seeing everyone from the president on down run around like the sky is falling because someone, somewhere got something past our security system. This hysteria is made worse when the government then mandates new restrictions on airline passengers – measures such as requiring passengers to have a flight attendant accompany them to the on-board lavatory. So long as we focus on such silliness instead of improving our intelligence and information communications systems, we’ll continue to have to deal with the likes of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.