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Jan 3rd, 2010

No ‘Smoking Gun’ in Airline Bombing Plot

Britain says it knew of suspect’s ties to extremists since 2006

Slide presentation
Terror suspect
Tracing the path of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a wealthy banker’s son, prestigious London college grad and now an accused terrorist.

January 3, 2010

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies did not miss a “smoking gun” that could have prevented an alleged attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser said Sunday.

Appearing on Sunday news talk shows, White House aide John Brennan cited “lapses” and errors in the sharing of intelligence and clues about the Nigerian man accused in the foiled attempt.

“There is no smoking gun,” Brennan said. “There was no single piece of intelligence that said, ‘this guy is going to get on a plane.'”

His comments came as a senior British government official revealed that British intelligence officials knew that the suspect had ties to U.K. extremists but did not consider him enough of a high risk to alert American authorities.

Officials realized about a year after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came to London to study in 2005 that he was in contact with Islamic extremists whose communications were being monitored, a senior government official told The Associated Press on Sunday.

“It was clear he was reaching out to radical extremists in the U.K. but there was nothing to indicate he was violent,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. “There is a very large number of people in the U.K. who express interest in radical extremism but never turn to violence. He only pinged up on our radar because of other people we were interested in.”

‘Bits and pieces’

Brennan is leading a White House review of the incident. Obama has said there was a systemic failure to prevent the attack, which he said was instigated by an affiliate in Yemen of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Obama ordered a thorough look at the shortcomings that permitted the plot, which failed not because of U.S. actions but because the would-be attacker was unable to ignite an explosive device. The president has summoned homeland security officials to meet with him in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday.

Abdulmutallab apparently assembled an explosive device, including 80 grams of Pentrite, or PETN, in the aircraft toilet of a Detroit-bound Northwest flight, then planned to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals. Passengers intervened, and the plan failed.

The 23-year-old suspect’s name was known to intelligence officials, and his father had passed along his concern about the son’s increasing radicalization.

“We had bits and pieces of information,” Brennan said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The father’s warning, he said, was “one set of data.”

But Brennan said other information available didn’t provide the details needed to map it and attach it to Abdulmutallab.




‘System did not work’ (NBC Meet the Press, Jan. 3, 2010) — Deputy national security adviser John Brennan discusses shortcomings in the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack. (10:51)

“What we need to do as an intelligence community, as a government, is be able to bring those disparate bits and pieces of information together so we prevent Mr. Abdulmutallab from getting on the plane.” Brennan, speaking earlier on “Fox News Sunday,” didn’t say whether anyone is in line to be fired because of the oversights. He stood by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, although he acknowledged she has “taken some hits” for saying that the airline security system had worked. It didn’t, and she clarified her remarks to show she meant that the system worked only after the attack was foiled, Brennan said. He said the situation was not like before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when intelligence agencies failed to share tips and information that might have uncovered the plot. He said there “were no turf battles” between agencies. “There were lapses. There were human errors. The system didn’t work the way it should have … but there wasn’t an effort to try to conceal information.” Tracking the ‘journey of extremism’ In London, the British official said there were no signs that Abdulmutallab wanted to target the United States or was considering turning toward violence.

Analyzing threats
(NBC Meet the Press, Jan. 3, 2010) — Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former CIA chief Michael Hayden discuss the growing national security challenges. (11:13)

Even though there are no set profile characteristics to indicate whether a suspect is likely to turn violent, the overall risk a person poses can be assessed by looking at their associates, travel patterns, threats and activities, the source said.

He declined to name the extremists that Abdulmutallab had contacted.

“Obviously if there was any indication that he was likely to target the U.S., we would have immediately alerted our U.S. counterparts,” the official added. “But the fact is that many start on this journey of extremism and few complete it.”

He said it wouldn’t make sense to alert U.S. authorities to every person who showed up on the “fringes of extremism” and said Abdulmutallab’s actual radicalization appeared to have come in the time he spent in Yemen.

Commentary: White House aide John Brennan’s explanation is unsatisfactory and does not inspire confidence in counterterrorism measures currently in place to protect the U.S. national security.


2/1/10 Update

Officials OKd Miranda Warning for Accused Airline Plotter

By Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times - logo
February 1, 2010

WASHINGTON — The decision to advise the accused Christmas Day attacker of his right to remain silent was made after teleconferences involving at least four government agencies — and only after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had stopped talking to authorities, according to knowledgeable law enforcement officials.

Among those involved in the hastily called teleconferences were representatives from the Justice Department and the FBI, along with officials from the State Department and the CIA.

“It was a [law enforcement] community-wide conference, and they discussed a number of things,” one source said on condition of anonymity. “That’s when decisions were made on which course was going to proceed, to Mirandize him or otherwise.”

The source said that Abdulmutallab was not read his rights until he made it clear that he was not going to say anything else. …

Full story


2/17/12 Update

Christmas Day Bomber Sentenced to Life in Prison

By David Ariosto and Deborah Feyerick

February 17, 2012

DETROIT — The man who smuggled a bomb in his underwear aboard a commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 has been sentenced to life in prison, months after he pleaded guilty for his role in what officials later determined was an al Qaeda plot.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds imposed a life sentence Thursday on Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who entered the courtroom in Detroit wearing an oversized white T-shirt and a white skull cap. His hands were unshackled once he entered.

He argued a life sentence would be “cruel and unusual punishment,” as well as unconstitutional. The judge rejected the argument.

Prosecutors brought a video showing the detonation of a replica of the device AbdulMutallab attempted to use. The judge ruled that the video could be shown during the sentencing hearing.

In the sentencing report, prosecutors called now 25-year-old Nigerian “an unrepentant would-be mass murderer, who views his crimes as divinely inspired and blessed.”

AbdulMutallab previously pleaded not guilty to the eight charges against him, which include attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism.

On December 25, 2009, passengers aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam heard a loud noise on the plane as it descended toward Detroit. Witnesses described it as sounding much like a firecracker.

The device failed, but AbdulMutallab became enveloped in a fireball that spread to the wall and carpeting of the plane. …

AbdulMutallab later acknowledged in a courtroom statement that he had traveled to Yemen and was “greatly inspired” to participate in such a plot by U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September. …

The decision to try AbdulMutallab in a civilian court prompted controversy at the time, particularly among Republican lawmakers pushing for a military tribunal. He’s been held at a Michigan federal prison since 2009.

Prosecutors, however, said the case demonstrated the value of civilian courts. …

Full story


Related reports on this site

Christmas Terrorism Alert (Dec. 25, 2009)

Terrorist Political Football (Feb. 8, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — January 3, 2009

Tensions Mount in Northern Iraq

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that tensions were mounting between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where political violence was increasing ahead of provincial elections.

9 Responses to “Underwear Bomb: No Smoking Gun”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Uncertain Ally Against al-Qaida Says:

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    […] Underwear Bomb: No Smoking Gun (Jan. 3, 2010) […]

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    […] Underwear Bomb: No Smoking Gun (Jan. 3, 2010) […]

  7. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Awlaki Escapes U.S. Drone Strike Says:

    […] The Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula franchise, led by Anwar al-Awlaki, is said to have inspired attacks by Muslims inside the United States — including the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings in which an Army psychiatrist is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32. […]

  8. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » American-Born Terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki Killed in Yemen Says:

    […] A U.S. official outlined new details of Anwar al-Awlaki’s involvement in anti-U.S. operations, including the attempted “underwear” bombing on Dec. 25, 2009 of a U.S.-bound aircraft. The official said al-Awlaki specifically directed the man accused of trying to bomb the Detroit-bound plane, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate an explosive device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties. […]

  9. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Christmas Terrorism Alert Says:

    […] Underwear Bomb: No Smoking Gun (Jan. 3, 2010) […]

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