Continuing inadequacies in airline security have once again been brought out in the incident relating to the unsuccessful attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, allegedly trained by Al Qaeda in one of its camps in Yemen, to blow up a flight of the North-West Airlines of the US from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009, as it was approaching to land at Detroit.
2. Subsequent details indicate that after spending some months as a student initially of engineering in London and then of business management in Dubai, Abdulmutallab, who as a youngster had made no secret of his sympathy, if not admiration, for the Taliban, had found his way to Yemen, which has become for more than a year now the motivating and training ground of Al Qaeda and the launching pad for Al Qaeda’s acts of terrorism in other countries of the world, including the US.
3. Links between Yemen and jihadi terrorism are more than two decades old. Yemenis constituted the largest single group of foreign mercenaries who fought against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. There is greater admiration and loyalty for Osama bin Laden amongst the various tribes of Yemen than in any other Arab country. Bin Laden’s father was of Yemeni origin and had migrated to Saudi Arabia from Yemen. There was considerable focus on Yemen by the US security agencies after the attack by Al Qaeda on the US naval ship USS Cole in Aden in October,2000, which pre-dated the 9/11 attacks in the US homeland. The largest single group of terrorist suspects detained in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba consists of Yemenis or people of Yemeni origin. Some of the terrorists involved in anti-US terrorist incidents in Pakistan had Yemeni blood in them. Some of the conspirators involved in the brutal kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, in Karachi in 2002 were allegedly Yemeni-Balochs----born of mixed Yemeni and Baloch Pashtun parentage. Pakistani sources always claimed that Ramzi Yousef, a principal plotter in the explosion at the New York World Trade Centre in February 1993, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who allegedly orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, were trusted by bin Laden because they had Yemeni blood in them. Normally, he keeps non-Arabs out of Al Qaeda for security reasons. Ramzi Yousef and KSM were exceptions.
4. For these reasons, anyone with links with Yemen, which cannot be satisfactorily explained, has to be carefully screened. Abdulmutallab seems to have obtained his US visa from the US Embassy in London before he left London and proceeded to Yemen. The US Embassy cannot be blamed for issuing the visa since at the time he applied for the visa his links with Yemen were apparently not known.
5. The first person to sound a wake-up call about Abdulmutallab was his father, who is a reputed banker of Nigeria. He reportedly came to know of his son going to Yemen from Dubai and unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to go back to Dubai and resume his studies. When he did not succeed, he is reported to have shared his concerns over his son with the US Embassy in Nigeria and with the Nigerian authorities. The suspicions or concerns of the father were conveyed by the US Embassy to the appropriate authorities in Washington DC, who rightly included his name in a data base of about 550000 names of persons, who have come to adverse notice, but the evidence against whom was not strong enough to deny them a visa or to prevent them from flying to the US.
6. Presumably, US visa officers all over the world have access to this data base so that they could consult it while processing visa applications. Apparently, the US Embassy in London failed to notice and alert Washington that Abdulmutallab, whose name had been brought on this list on a complaint from his father, already held a valid US visa, which he had obtained before going to Yemen.
7. Had this fact been noticed, it might not have led to a cancellation of his visa and the denial of permission to him to visit the US. But it should have led to a close questioning of him at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam by the security authorities of the US and Holland. There was apparently no such questioning. As a result, the security authorities failed to find out that he was travelling to the US by a circuitous route which started in Yemen. It has been reported that he flew from Yemen to Ethiopia, then to Ghana, then to Lagos in Nigeria and from there to Schiphol to catch the flight to Detroit. The circuitous route taken by him should have sounded an alarm bell and led to his being subjected to special security checking at Schiphol, which should have included a detailed interview on his itinerary and on the purpose of his stay in Yemen and a physical search and a search by dogs more intensive than that to which other passengers are subjected.
8. An intriguing question is whether his passport contained the immigration stamp of Yemen, which might have raised eyebrows at Schiphol. If not, did he travel from Yemen to Ethiopia by a different passport to conceal the fact that his travel started from Yemen?
9.A more than normal intensive checking of selected individuals is an important component of physical security. From the details regarding the Nigerian emerging after the incident, it would appear at least in hindsight that his was a fit case for such intensive checking. Why this did not happen? That is one of the questions which needs to be addressed by the enquiries by the US administration as well as by the Congressional Homeland Security Committees ( 28-12-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )