The other passengers did not know it, but the polite young man sitting next to the window in seat 19A had left a trail of clues that American spies and analysts had missed for at least a month. On Christmas Day, Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit was hurtling at 500 knots right through what, in essence, was a huge gap in America’s security system.
That system had been designed after the Sept. 11 suicide attacks. Whole new agencies had been invented and staffed in the eight years since, including the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Agency. The new walls against terrorism appear to an outsider like an alphabet soup of acronyms like TSC, TSDB, TSA, NCTC, and DNI.
But Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, carrying explosives in his underwear, was getting through. Now the questions are why and how. “A failure,” declared President Barack Obama. “Negligence,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
At first glance, Abdulmutallab may seem an unlikely suicide bomber. “Take the stereotype of a terrorist that everyone has been talking about for the last ten years, and throw it right out the window,” said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert and NBC News analyst.
Abdulmutallab is a child of privilege, the youngest son of one of Nigeria’s most powerful bankers. In an autobiographical account he wrote in 2008, the then-21-year-old detailed his education and engagement with Islam. He showed no trace of terrorism or radicalism and wrote of the expensive private high school he attended in Togo. There, he said, his position among the Muslim students “instilled in me an added responsibility to be a good ambassador of Islam and a caller towards Allah.”
He also wrote about a visit he made to the United States in 2004, to attend the Global Youth and Leadership Conference in Washington and New York. It was, in his words, “an opportunity to explore and exchange ideas on pertinent global issues from people all around the world who have shown good leadership qualities.”
From 2005 to 2008, he studied mechanical engineering at the well-regarded University College London. Again, he was deeply involved in Islamic affairs, but associates never considered him a radical or extremist. He became the head of the college Islamic society, and would later boast that the group pioneered advertising for society events on YouTube, the Internet video site. Qasim Rafiq, who headed the society before Abdulmutallab, says he considered Abdulmulallab remarkably solid and “dependable,” but, again, not radical.
Even so, while he was a student, counterterrorism sources say British security services were aware that Abdulmutallab had online communications with known Islamic extremists in Britain.
NBC’s terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann says it may have been a radical shift. “Something changed that made him feel that his politics now were enough to justify murder, death, destruction on a mass scale."
After graduating from college in 2008, Abdulmutallab traveled to Houston, Texas, for a special two-week advanced course in Islamic theology and culture. Renowned Islamic scholar Dr. Waleed Basyouni remembers teaching him. In an interview with NBC News, Basyouni, an outspoken critic of extremism, said that when he criticized al-Qaida in classes, Abdulmutallab showed no reaction. “I don't remember him showing any sign of objections: ‘Oh this is not right. This is not correct.’… which indicated to me that he doesn't have a problem with what I'm saying.”
Receiving his visa
That August 2008 trip would prove critical because the State Department issued Abdulmutallab a two-year, multiple-entry visa. That meant he could travel to the United States at any point for the next 24 months. The door was open. It was the sort of visa that al-Qaida might very well see as a golden opportunity to strike at the U.S. heartland. And clearly, it was that visa that enabled him to board Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
After his stint in Houston, Abdulmutallab headed to the Middle East, enrolling in an MBA program in Dubai. He left that program prematurely and went to Yemen ostensibly to study Arabic.
Around that time, according to intelligence officials, intercepted communications indicated that a terrorist plot was being hatched in Yemen involving a Nigerian. No one ever named Abdulmutallab specifically or suggested that attack involved a bomb on a plane headed for Detroit, but as the White House would later say, there was enough to stop him.
Back in Nigeria in the fall of 2009, more than a month before the failed attack, Abdulmutallab’s own father was becoming increasingly panicked about his son’s dramatic transformation. His father was a powerful man in the country. “That was when the man became frantic about going to Yemen to bring back his child,” said Dora Akunyili, the Minister of Information for the government of Nigeria. “He never succeeded. And he resorted to reporting to authorities: ‘this is what is going on. Please help me bring back my child!’”
The wealthy father was so desperate to stop his son’s involvement with potential terrorists that he was willing to turn him in to the U.S. government. He met with the CIA station chief and other U.S. officials in Nigeria, who sent a special cable through a State Department system called VISAS VIPER.
Intelligence officials tell NBC News the cable included the following language: “Information at post suggests the subject may be involved with Yemeni-based extremists. Abdulmutallab has traveled previously to the UK, Lome, Togo, and Dubai, UAE.”
Two days after his father briefed the CIA in Nigeria, and thousands of miles away, analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) near Washington, D.C., read the cable and tried to figure out what the appropriate action was. According to U.S. intelligence officials, they had the young man’s name and passport number and biographical details, as well as his photo.
The NCTC has received more than 550,000 names over the years, flagged as possibly being associated with terrorism. Intelligence officials say there are fewer than 100 NCTC analysts reviewing hundreds of names that are sent in by other agencies every day.
If NCTC analysts believe there is “reasonable suspicion,” they send the names on to another agency, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which is part of the Department of Justice. That happens in the vast majority of cases. Of those 550,000 names received, NCTC has forwarded more than 450,000 to the TSC, according to intelligence sources.
At the TSC, more analysts dig deeper to determine how much of a threat each individual poses and who should be put on the much-narrower No Fly list. Anyone on that list is banned from boarding a U.S.-bound plane.
In the case of Abdulmutallab, the NCTC decided he did not meet the standard of “reasonable suspicion.” So his name was never forwarded to the TSC and was not directly considered for inclusion on the no-fly list.
Why did the National Counterterrorism Center make that decision?
The agency followed guidelines based on a definition of “reasonable suspicion” under a Presidential Directive drawn up in 2003, according to congressional testimony. The definition requires a real link to “terrorism and terrorist activities” (rather than just violent ideologies.)
In addition, the NCTC did not know that Abdulmutallab had a visa to the United States. An intelligence official tells NBC that if the NCTC had known that Abdulmutallab had a visa, “phones would have been ringing.” But the analysts at the NCTC didn’t know about the visa because in the fall of 2009 when the State Department checked its files against Abdulmutallab’s name, it didn’t find the visa it had issued a year and a half earlier. The preliminary investigation later cited a “misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name.”
With U.S. counterterrorism agencies fumbling, the 23-year-old Abdulmutallab was able to travel under the radar. Sources with knowledge of the investigation say that after leaving Yemen in early December, he stopped in Ethiopia, en route to Ghana, where he bought his ticket to Detroit. When he arrived in the capital of Accra, he declared he would be staying at the Holiday Inn, but apparently stayed at the Relax Court Hotel. A manager there told NBC News a man by the name of Umar was registered in that time frame. Pressed for more details, the manager referred a reporter to Ghana’s security services.
With finger pointing now underway in Washington, the scale of the intelligence failure is becoming clear. Congressman Peter King, R-N.Y., a critic of President Obama’s early tactics against terrorism, said in an interview with NBC News, “The administration is negligent when so many things go wrong.”
President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric, making a scathing speech about the intelligence failures. “The U.S. government had the information -- scattered throughout the system -- to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack,” he said on Thursday. “We are at war,” he announced, in tough new language. “We are at war against al-Qaida, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again.”
Congressman King applauded that new tone but argues it comes too late. “If the president had been as forceful through the year as he was the other day,” he said, “would the people in the field be more aggressive? Would the CIA have responded more quickly than they did?”
The White House’s chief national security lawyer is Denis McDonough. He argued to NBC that any calls for heads to roll are political. President Obama, he said, is “not going to heed these calls for someone’s head. But rather he’s going to continue to press to get to the bottom of it. To ensure that we’re in a better position to stop them in the future.’
McDonough acknowledged that the missing element here may have been common sense. He said that the president believes that the type of information that was available to analysts “should flip a flag for us, should result in a warning order across the government to say, ‘What are we doing to stop this guy?’"
No 'one algorithm or one database'
He also says there’s not necessarily a scientific solution. “The idea that there’s one algorithm or one database that if we put all the inputs in there, we’ll stop them, is false.” Still, he says the systems, and the analysts can work and will be fixed.
John Farmer, senior counsel of the 9/11 Commission and currently dean of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, acknowledges that some progress has been made, but nowhere near enough. In an interview, Farmer, who recent published Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11, said, “The most frustrating thing for me is that—you know the same kinds of mistakes that occurred before 9/11 recurred here.”
And as for the passengers who could have died on Flight 253, on Christmas Day, they have to realize that their survival owes nothing at all to the federal government and all its systems. Instead they relied on each other and on good fortune.
‘It’s luck,” said survivor Melinda Dennis. “I think it’s luck. Had he succeeded in being able to detonate it, there wouldn’t have been anything we could do.”
NBC News Producer Justin Balding contributed to this report.