Monday, December 28, 2009

Terror Suspect: Warning Signs Missed?

Steven Emerson
Interview on MSNBC
December 28, 2009

CHRIS JANSING: But first, new developments this morning in the attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day. 23 year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from Nigeria, now charged with trying to destroy an airliner. A federal judge read the charges of Abdulmutallab at a hospital in Michigan where he's being treated for burns. The suspect is reportedly claiming he received training and instruction from Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. U.S. officials say the suspect's father expressed concerns about his son to the American embassy last month. Officials also say the suspect's name was added to a government watchlist of people with terror ties in November. And security a whole lot tighter at airports worldwide. There are extra pat-downs before boarding, no getting up for the last hour of flight, and more bomb-sniffing dogs.

For more now, I'm joined by terrorism expert, Steve Emerson. Good to see you, Steve. Let's start with the obvious question. What are the questions you have about how this happened?

STEVEN EMERSON: Well, I'd like to first find out who recruited him. I'd like to find out where he got the explosives. I want to get the signature of the bomb which is now being determined by forensic investigators at Quantico, Chris. I'd like to find out who sent him. How he was recruited. Those are all things they may find out, obviously, through the interrogation of him, plus a review of his cell phone records, his travel records, his computers, or laptop if they can retrieve it. Interviews with his colleagues, his friends, or whatever. And now a review of his national security records over the past year to see whether he actually came into the United States ahead of time, as they think he did, to do a reconnaissance mission to determine the feasibility of carrying out such an attack.

JANSING: Which leads to the obvious follow-up, which is were warning signs missed? We know he was on this very broad base of a watchlist. We know that his father reported him. There are reports that he'd been in Yemen that he'd been in with a well known radical cleric. Were there signs do you think that we'll find should have been seen before all this happened?

EMERSON: Chris, I think there were two sets of signs that were missed. One were the long range signs, long range indicators and the other ones were short range indicators. Let's take the short range first. He pays cash for an airplane ticket, doesn't have any checked baggage, just has one carryon; a small carryon. That's a telltale giveaway that somebody's on a no-good mission. That's number one. Number two, reports about his Islamic extremist views that were actually advanced to the U.S. embassy by none other than his father, six months to a year before this plot. Another piece of intelligence collected by U.S. intelligence that was entered into a database a month ago that he was connected to Al Qaeda. I think, Chris, to be honest with you, there was a little bit of a political aversion to furthering an investigation just because somebody was noted as an Islamic extremist. I think that's because of certain political correctness. I think that right now we have to investigate anyone who's noted as a radical Islamic extremist and see whether in fact they are in contact with terrorist groups. If we had done that Chris, we might have averted this incident.

JANSING: Is this an indication to you, Steve, that sort of, if I can use this word, that the profile of the people that are being recruited are changing? If we make the assumption that he did not act alone, that he was somehow either closely or loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda or one of its offshoots. After 9/11, you and I talked extensively and one of the things you and other analysts said to me is "look, they're recruiting a lot of these young, poor, disenfranchised kids. They have nothing in their life. They have a lot of anger about it." This is not that profile at all. He's highly educated; his father was a prominent banking official in Nigeria, the house that is his last known address was apparently worth four million dollars. Is this a new kind of more wealthy, more educated person that may be drawn to these terrorist groups?

EMERSON: You know, Chris, I think that we see that Al Qaeda recruits the entire spectrum of the Islamic socioeconomic class from poor, let's say refugee status Muslim fanatics to actual upper class, people like this kid, who came from a privileged background. His father as you noted, was Chairman of the most prominent Nigerian bank. He didn't suffer from lack of want. He actually somehow became disaffected and was recruited and became a true believer in the last several months; a true believer in Al Qaeda. So Al Qaeda is basically a franchise operation. You don't fit a profile any longer. You can be lower middle class, you can be working class, you can be upper class. This is what beguiles investigators because they no longer have a standard profile.

JANSING: Let me ask you about what's going on now because they're already stepping up security. I happen to fly yesterday morning and I saw the lines were incredibly long. We're talking about keeping people in their seats for the last hour of flight, not allowing them to have blankets potentially over their lap for the last hour of flights. Things that are specifically designed to have prevented what happened. But do you think that's the smartest way to go? To look at what has happened before in this case just a couple of days ago and say ok, this is how we could have prevented this from happening?

EMERSON: Generals are always fighting the last war and the same thing in counterterrorism. You're always fighting the last war. You're always responding to the most critical aspect of the war in which you're vulnerable. Here Al Qaeda tested a vulnerability of U.S. security or a would-be Al Qaeda, or a wannabe. We don't know yet whether he was recruited or whether he signed up by himself or whether it was a franchise operation or whatever. The fact of the matter is this point we're responding to the vulnerability of the security system which was tested and then found to be wanting. The only reason the plane didn't blow up was because of the fast action of a passenger and because he didn't ignite the explosive residue that he had maintained up his leg. He had the syringe, he has the explosive matter available but didn't carry it out successfully.

JANSING: Steve, it's always good to talk to you. Thanks so much, appreciate it.

EMERSON: Sure, thank you.

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