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Agency Got Alleged Terrorist's Name Days Before Flight

By Chris Strohm

CongressDaily

(Jan. 13) -A dog sniffs luggage for explosives at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Dec. 26, one day after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to bomb an airliner arriving at the city. U.S. Customs and Border Protection received information on Abdulmutallab three days before the flight, officials said (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images). (Jan. 13) -A dog sniffs luggage for explosives at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Dec. 26, one day after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to bomb an airliner arriving at the city. U.S. Customs and Border Protection received information on Abdulmutallab three days before the flight, officials said (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency had information about alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab three days before his departure from Amsterdam to Detroit, but even with that much advance notice nothing could be done to stop him from boarding the plane, according to Obama administration officials and congressional aides (see GSN, Jan. 11).

Officials had previously disclosed that CBP learned about Abdulmutallab only after the manifest for Northwest Flight 253 had been generated and the plane took off.

"Officials wouldn't have pulled him out for secondary screening or prevented him from flying in Amsterdam because, as has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab was not on the selectee, no-fly or even the terror watch list, and that is, of course, one of the failures the president has so strongly criticized," an administration official told CongressDaily.

Under U.S. rules, airlines must transmit "passenger name record" data on passengers 72 hours before a flight leaves for the United States, and Delta, parent company of Northwest Airlines, met that time line for Abdulmutallab, officials said.

"We were compliant with all requirements for submitting passenger information as it relates to the vetting process," said Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott.

But the Obama administration asserts there was no possibility that the data could have led to Abdulmutallab being flagged because he was not already identified in key intelligence and law enforcement databases.

The House Intelligence Committee expects to be briefed this morning by senior U.S. intelligence officials on what agencies knew about Abdulmutallab and when and why it fell through the cracks. Other House lawmakers plan to be briefed today and Senate hearings on the incident are scheduled to begin next week.

The passenger data on Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, included his name and passport information, but not that he paid cash for a round-trip ticket, officials said.

Customs and Border Protection used the data to run a check on Abdulmutallab against the FBI's consolidated terrorist watch list. But Abdulmutallab's name was not on the watch list, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano said at last Thursday's White House briefing.

"And so nothing pinged to keep him off of the plane," she said.

Congressional aides said the situation does not show negligence on the administration's part but rather reveals a need to overhaul the system for collecting and using passenger name data.

Such data represents the earliest information on air travelers that is sent to the U.S. government and, if linked to intelligence, could be used to identify suspected terrorists, they said.

"At this point, we're coming up on eight or nine years after (the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks) and we need to start the screening process as early as possible," one aide said.

Aides said passenger name data is fragmented and not uniform among airlines. Changes could include requiring the airlines to adopt a uniform system and give CBP more information about each passenger, aides said.

That could prompt opposition from the airline industry, which might complain that revamping the system would be too costly or burdensome.

Officials disclosed after the incident that Abdulmutallab's name was in the government's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, which is a broad repository of information on more than 500,000 known or suspected terrorists. But being on that list does not by itself bar anyone from flying.

"As we have indicated before, there were bits and pieces of information about Abdulmutallab available in a variety of areas in the system prior to Dec. 25," an administration official said.

"There was no new information that emerged when the plane was in the air, or in passenger name record information before departure," the official added. "All that happened is Customs and Border Protection followed its normal procedures and checks as it prepared for arriving passengers and by doing so they accessed the suspect's TIDE-based record, which is why they were going to ask him a few additional questions after he landed before allowing him admission into the country -- and why they didn't stop him in Amsterdam first."

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