The "Systemic Failures" in Intelligence that Could Have Prevented the Flight 253 Attempted Bombing

by Jerry Gordon (January 2010)


As 2009 was morphing into the New Year of 2010, America found itself once again in a finger pointing exercise over a foiled al Qaeda airline terrorist bombing on Christmas Day. Both politicians and the media bemoaned patent failures of the intelligence community and homeland security echelons to identify and stop the perpetrator, 23-year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab prior to flying to this country. 

The finger pointing was reminiscent of the public introspection that followed in the wake of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attacks. The nation thought following the recommendations of the Congressionally-mandated 9/11 Commission that we were able to intercept foreign Islamic terrorist threats against this country. Clearly, given the NWA Flight 253 episode, that threat was not deterred.

The nation was stunned to learn of the terrorist bombing attempt, the fire and the fracas aboard North West Airlines (NWA) Flight 253 during which courageous passengers subdued suspect Abdulmutallab. NWA Flight 253 had originated at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, considered one of the world safest transit points in international aviation circles. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was lambasted after her remarks on an NBC Meet the Press program that our air safety security system “had worked smoothly.” Abruptly embarrassed by the spike in public criticism of her fecklessness in the wake of revelations about failure to intercept the suspect Abdulmutallab she quickly recanted:

Ms. Napolitano was criticized when she portrayed a thwarted bombing of a Detroit-bound airline on Christmas Day, 2009, as a test that the air safety system passed.

Counterterrorism experts and members of Congress were hardly willing to praise what they said was a security system that had proved to be not nimble enough to respond to the ever-creative techniques devised by would-be terrorists.

On Dec. 28, Ms. Napolitano said that the thwarted bombing represented a failure of the nation’s aviation security system, not the success she and other administration officials had first claimed. She said that her initial remark — “the system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days” — had been taken out of context. “Our system did not work in this instance,” she said. “No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.”

President Obama at a hastily arranged news conference in Hawaii chastised the intelligence community “systematic failure” in the foiled terror bombing:

When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted on as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred Obama said, “and I consider that unacceptable.”


It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list. There appears to be other deficiencies as well.

Even without this one report, there were bits of information within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.

That news conference occurred several days following the attempted terror bombing amidst embarrassing revelations about failures of the intelligence community to pass along information that might have intercepted suspect, Abdulmutallab.

The lost opportunities to ‘connect the dots’

This intelligence debacle can be seen in the skein of revelations that have tumbled out upon investigation. 

Abdulmutallab‘s father had approached the US embassy in Lagos not once but three times in November to express concerns about his son’s extremist views and activities. Politico reported  this revelation including CIA involvement:

Armen Keteyian, CBS News’ chief investigative correspondent, reported on the “CBS Evening News” that the Central Intelligence Agency had received information in August about a person of interest dubbed “The Nigerian,” suspected of meeting with terrorist elements in Yemen.

Sources tell CBS News ‘The Nigerian’ has now turned out to be Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab,” Keteyian reported.

But that connection was not made when Abdulmutallab’s father went to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria three months later — on Nov. 19, 2009 — and gave that warning to the CIA about his son’s ties to suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. In fact, CBS News has learned that none of this information was connected until after the attempted Christmas Day bombing.  

Our State Department then placed the information provided by the CIA from the encounter with Abdulmutallab’s father into the suspect’s files so that it would come up when he next applied for renewal of his US travel Visa in 2010. This mindless bureaucratic action by the State Department took place despite the fact that the suspect had been placed on a US counterterrorism  ‘watch list’ maintained by the NCTC. That NCTC designation as well as information from the CIA should have immediately placed him on a State Department ‘no fly list.’ The British at least had the good sense to reject Abdulmutallab’s application for renewal of his student visa in May 2009 and placed him on their ‘watch list.’ 

Four months prior to the Christmas day foiled bombing the NSA had intercepted conversations among al Qaeda affiliate commanders in Yemen indicating that a Nigerian was going to undertake a bombing mission in the US. Abdulmutallab, it was reported, had gone to Yemen to receive training for such a mission. Then it was revealed by US Counterterrorism officials that the suspect Abdulmutallab had direct contact with American born Yemeni extremist Imam, Anwar al- Awlaki, involved with the Fort Hood Mass shooter suspect, Major Hasan. Awlaki, along with 28 others, was allegedly killed in an air assault against an al Qaeda site in Yemen just prior to the NWA Flight 253 episode. 

Abdulmuttallab paid over $2,800 in cash for a round trip ticket between Lagos and Detroit, did not carry any luggage and yet possessed an unexpired US Visa for travel to the US. He slipped through the screening at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport when he changed planes from the KLM flight from Lagos to the fateful NWA flight to Detroit.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, it was subsequently revealed, had the body scan equipment that might have detected the PETN explosives secreted on Abdulmutallab except that the Bush Administration had earlier advised Dutch transportation security authorities that it would be “too intrusive” to Americans.

Even the method of secreting the explosive PETN in Abdulmuttallab’s underwear, according to an Investors Business Daily editorial, had been identified in June at the most unlikely place, Mogadishu Airport in Somalia. African Union troops at Mogadishu airport had identified, detained and strip searched a suspicious suspect about to board a flight to Dubai.

The Role of UCL in radicalizing Abdulmutallab

Abdulmutallab, not unlike many of the 9/11 Jihadis, was an engineering graduate. He attended University College London (UCL), and is the scion of a wealthy Nigerian banking family. As fellow UCL alum, Venetia Thompson points out in a Daily Beast report, “My Classmate the Plane Bomber:“

 Abdulmutallab was president of the UCL Islamic Society, was able to launch what can only be described as an anti-Western propagandist YouTube video advertising the society’s “War on Terror Week” without any intervention from the university. 

Douglas Murray, head of the Centre for Social Cohesion that investigates Islamic extremism in the U.K. had these observations in the Daily Telegraph about the environment at the UCL:

UCL has not just failed to prevent students being radicalized, they have been complicit. Referring to Abu Usama, an extremist due to speak at UCL last month and known for preaching that homosexuals and apostates should be killed: “If any other society at UCL invited someone to speak who encouraged killing homosexuals, that society would be banned immediately, but academics are afraid of taking action when it involves Islamic societies in case they are accused of Islamophobia.”

President Obama’s Role in fostering Muslim  infiltration at Homeland Security

Despite President Obama’s public ‘anger’ over this latest intelligence SNAFU, his actions may have given rise to Islamic terror groups assessment that they could get away with attacks here in America. After all, he reached out to the Muslim ummah in his visit to Ankara, Turkey and most dramatically with his televised Cairo speech in June praising Islam for its alleged ‘civilizational contributions’ and even citing, incorrectly, allegedly tolerant Quranic verses.  

Then there was his Presidential appointment of former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Arif Alikhan, to a senior post at Janet Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security.

The appointment of Alikhan as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy Development at DHS is illustrative of Muslim infiltration given his tenure at the US Department of Justice during the Bush Administration and his role as a Deputy Mayor for Public Safety in Los Angeles, where he may have been responsible for defeating a controversial L.A.P.D. Muslim community profiling program. Note this exchange from a Southern California Public Radio interview with Alikhan:

Alikhan rose to chief of the Cyber and Intellectual Crimes Section [ in the US Department of Justice] and worked as a senior adviser to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez in Washington. Now, after two years as L.A.’s deputy mayor for public safety, the 40-year-old returns to the nation’s capital as assistant secretary for the Office of Policy Development at the Department of Homeland Security.

This is the main sort of think tank and policy analysis shop that provides advice to the secretary, the deputy secretary, and spans over all of the different component departments of the Department of Homeland Security.

His first briefing book was a 90-page list of acronyms he’ll use on his job. He says a big part of his job will be fostering communication between agencies. Alikhan also wants to help improve America’s image with Muslims around the world.

I think a lot of people have learned from me about being Muslim, how diverse it is, how there is no real monolithic Islam out there, how Islam clearly, clearly prohibits any type of extremism or violence and absolutely condemns that.

He may get that opportunity to teach again at some of the highest levels of the federal government.

Then there is this revelation from a
Discover the Network post about Alikhan:

During his years in Los Angeles, Alikhan was responsible for derailing the Police Department’s plan to monitor activities within the Los Angeles Muslim community, where numerous radical mosques and madrassas existed, and where some of the 9/11 hijackers had received support from local residents.

Strongly anti-Israel, Alikhan has referred to the terrorist organization Hezbollah as a “liberation movement.” An affiliate of the
Muslim Public Affairs Council, Alikhan opposed President George W. Bush’s prosecution of the war on Islamic terror.

Perhaps it was this Muslim ummah outreach initiative and DHS appointment by President Obama that sent a message to the intelligence community to lay off concerns about the doctrinal threat of Qur’anic Jihadism behind Islamic terrorism. This is reflected in a string of counterterrorism disasters chronicled by Patrick Poole in a Pajamas media review,
“2009: Tipping Point for Domestic Terror?”  Poole commented:

Remember that one of the first acts of the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration was to issue a report warning of “right-wing extremism” and the looming terrorist threat of military veterans, pro-lifers, and opponents of illegal immigration. That threat didn’t pan out, while Islamic terrorism has flourished notwithstanding Obama’s “Blame America First” world tour and groveling outreach to the Muslim world.

What 2009 has taught us is how rapidly the nature of the threat from Islamic jihadists is evolving and how utterly unable our government is to recognize and respond to that threat. Sadly, I predict that the coming year will show us how bold, aggressive, and inventive our enemies have become and how little we have learned from the events of the past year. Let’s all hope that prediction doesn’t prove true.

“Israelification” of airport security

The last line of defense following the 9/11 attacks by Islamic Jihadist was the creation of a huge bureaucracy costing taxpayers billions, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), housed in the DHS. In the midst of the current crisis the TSA has been without a head for a year. Further, as you will see in this Washington Post report, nor would it make much difference:

The TSA has been operating without a permanent top official for almost a year, a result of a political power play by a Republican senator opposed to collective bargaining by government workers.

The result, according to some transportation and security analysts, is an agency unable to muster the political will to make the alterations necessary to adapt to changing international threats.

“What doesn’t get done as well is leadership and confident direction-setting,” said Stewart A. Baker, who was a top official at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration. “There are plenty of competent people at TSA. But when you are not a political appointee, you have to walk on eggshells a little.”

Baker and others say they do not think the security failure of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 would have been avoided if President Obama‘s nominee — former FBI agent and police detective Erroll Southers — had been on the job Friday.

But they say they doubt that Acting Administrator Gale D. Rossides, a Bush appointee, has the political connections within the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress to reinvent the agency in ways that get ahead of terrorists.

“She’s competent and knows the system well,” said one transportation expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he regularly works with TSA officials. “But she doesn’t want to rock the boat. She’s basically there to keep the trains on the tracks.”

The TSA, with long queues created at air terminals, requiring millions of air passengers to partially undress and take off their shoes, is ponderously dependent on technical screening. As we saw earlier, full body scanning had been shelved by Amsterdam airport security officials because of US complaints about its intrusiveness. Adoption of trace explosive swab technology might be less costly and certainly would have identified suspect, Abdulmuttallab, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. 

However, this heavy reliance on sophisticated screening and detection technology avoids the highly successful, demonstrably less intrusive system, developed by the Israel’s El Al Airlines security team. Many of the El Al security alumni now consult with major world class airport managers, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol. There is only one problem with the Israeli model and methods of airport screening. It relies on very un-politically correct profiling of air passengers.

The Toronto Star in a report on this issue,” The Israelification of airports: high security with little bother,” suggests  that the world’s air transport system needs more “Israelification“ not less.   Witness these comments by Israeli air security consultant, Rafi Sela:

While North America’s airports groan under the weight of another sea-change in security protocols, one word keeps popping out of the mouths of experts: Israelification.

That is, how can we make our airports more like Israel’s, which deal with far greater terror threat with far less inconvenience.

“It is mindboggling for us Israelis to look at what happens in North America, because we went through this 50 years ago,” said Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy. He’s worked with the RCMP, the U.S. Navy Seals and airports around the world.

“Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don’t take s— from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for — not for hours — but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.”

That, in a nutshell is “Israelification” – a system that protects life and limb without annoying you to death.

Despite facing dozens of potential threats each day, the security set-up at Israel’s largest hub, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight. How do they manage that?

“The first thing you do is to look at who is coming into your airport,” said Sela.

The first layer of actual security that greets travelers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

“Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” Sela said.

Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of “distress” — behavioral profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.

“The word ‘profiling’ is a political invention by people who don’t want to do security,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behavior. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?”

Just imagine the security, efficiency and the lack of personal intrusiveness if the TSA adopted the Israeli model. Allison Kaplan Sommer made this comment about the Israeli airport security system in a
Pajamas media article that reflected Israeli airport security consultant Sela’s Toronto Star presentation:

Airport security in Israel is not about what’s on your feet, or in your pockets, or — god forbid — in your underwear. It’s about what’s in your head.

While the Israeli security system is certainly not perfect, it is unlikely that
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could have successfully boarded a plane without being detained, questioned in-depth, and hopefully caught — even if his risk level hadn’t been so clearly documented.

Criticism of the NCTC

One of the agencies created as a result of the 9/11 Commission recommendations was the NCTC. The New York Times in a news analysis article “9/11 shadow is cast again” tried to pin the intelligence debacle on the NCTC. The NCTC was set up following the 9/11 Commission to coordinate the sharing of intelligence from the alphabet soup of foreign and domestic agencies. It also maintains the “watch list” of persons of interest that apparently included, the suspect, Abdulmutallab. 

The New York Times article about this intelligence debacle tried to pin the blame on the NCTC.

Note this excerpt.

But the harshest spotlight fell on the very agency created to make sure intelligence dots were always connected: the National Counterterrorism Center. The crown jewel of intelligence reform after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the center was the hub whose mission was to unite every scrap of data on threats and suspects, to make sure an extremist like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber, would never penetrate the United States’ defenses.

“N.C.T.C. is supposed to be the nerve center,” said Amy B. Zegart, who studies intelligence at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s the fusion center of all fusion centers. So if something was missed, that’s where the blame is going to go.”

Officials at the counterterrorism center — a small agency in a modern glass building in suburban Virginia — maintained a stoic silence on Wednesday, noting that the review ordered by President Obama was still under way. But those who led the major studies of how the United States government failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks watched the unfolding story of the Christmas Day attack with growing dismay.

“It’s totally frustrating,” said Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the national Sept. 11 commission. “It’s almost like the words being used to describe what went wrong are exactly the same.”

Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint Congressional inquiry into Sept. 11, called the emerging story “eerily similar to the disconnects and missteps we investigated.”

“There seems to have been the same failure to put the pieces of the puzzle together and get them to the right people in time,” Ms. Hill said.

NCTC director Leiter –“The  Secret Sharer”

The Times analysis doesn’t articulate why the NCTC and for that matter most of the intelligence community failed. In our opinion, it may be attributable to being blindsided by official political correctness regarding the ‘man made disaster’ of Islamic Jihadism that might be at the root cause of the NWA Flight 253 al Qaeda bombing attempt.

In a July, 2009 article, “Islam and the Long War,”  we noted   Michael Leiter Director of the NCTC was obsessively politically correct about Islamic Jihad doctrine. That official mindset and the lapses in synthesizing the disparate intelligence information may have prevented both he and his 600 person staff in northern Virginia from connecting the dots about the suspect and motives behind the NWA Flight 253 bombing attempt.  

The Columbia University alumni Magazine, Columbia , Summer edition, had an article, “The Secret Sharer” that included an interview with Michael Leiter, 40 year old head of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC). Leiter is a ’91 graduate of Columbia College who opted to become a Naval Aviator after college and saw service flying EA-6b Prowlers in Bosnia and Iraq in the 1990s. After his Navy service he enrolled in Harvard Law School, was elected as President of the prestigious Law Review and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Following that he had a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. When American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon it jarred him into thinking about doing something. He became a federal prosecutor fighting crime. In 2004, he became deputy general counsel on the Robb–Silberman Commission that studied the alleged WMD intelligence fiasco in Iraq. In November 2007, Leiter’s NCTC predecessor, John Scott Redd, left because of health issues. After a fruitless search by the outgoing Bush Administration, Leiter got the nod to take over the top slot at the NCTC in March 2008 and the Senate confirmed the appointment last June. President Obama asked Leiter to stay on.

Leiter sees the NCTC’s mission as “… a one –stop shop for mapping out terrorism threat and designing a plan for the U.S. government to counter it abroad.” The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security allegedly handle domestic terrorism threats and intelligence. Leiter feels that this demarcation between foreign versus domestic terrorism threats “… ensure that the apparatus which is developed for international counterterrorism and Al-Qaeda is not appropriately applied to domestic groups.” 

In the Columbia article Leiter presented his views when it comes to Islam, Al Qaeda and the ‘long war’. 

More than 50 percent of terrorism victims in 2008 were Muslim, which is a very powerful reminder that this is not about the West being at war with Islam. This is Al-Qaeda completely perverting a wonderful, peaceful religion, leading to death and suffering for Muslims in many parts of the world. . . Al Qaeda’s ultimate goal is to establish a caliphate across the Middle East into North Africa, and into parts of Asia, and expel the U.S. and Westerners and Israel from that caliphate.  This is still at the core of their mission; they believe this, and they believe it very strongly. … There are a wide variety of drivers (political corruption, lack of a political voice and a lack of economic opportunity) behind why a 19 year old in Yemen or Somalia or Islamabad or Morocco would identify with Al Qaeda.

The U.S. is not at war with Islam. Al Qaeda is at war with Islam. The U.S. and Muslim –majority countries throughout the world are actually a partnership, and that partnership involves combating Al-Qaeda, but also building hope inside those countries.

These comments bespeak of Leiter’s lack of fundamental knowledge of the totalitarian ideology in the Canon of Islam: the Quran, the Hadiths, Sira and legal rulings. 

Fellow Columbia alumni, Dr. Harold Reisman of Carlsbad, California wrote the following letter to Columbia regarding this article and interview with NCTC director Leiter. 


Mr. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was interviewed (Summer, 2009). He must have read the Qur’an, Hadiths and Sira and knows that vast tracts of the foundational religious texts of Islam concern the dar al-harb, attacks on kafirs, the need for war, rules of war, methods of warfare, dealing with male and female captives, slavery, treatment of subjugated peoples and division of the spoils. Words and aggressive acts of Mohammed account for over 80 percent of the doctrine of Islam. Just how did Islam expand so far and so fast within two centuries of its founding? Yet, Mr. Leiter states that Al-Qaeda is “. . . completely perverting a wonderful, peaceful religion…” I suppose it is de rigueur for current government officials to consider Islam a religion of peace. But why, I wonder, do we have to be repeatedly reminded of this counterfactual belief over and over again?


It would appear from his comments that Leiter and his staff needed to review the Islamic Law War Doctrine analysis prepared by former Pentagon analyst, Stephen Coughlin.  

If NCTC director Leiter had received a briefing by Coughlin and understood the Islamic Jihad threat doctrine, it might have enabled his team to analyze the intelligence ‘signals’ they had received. This might have alerted intelligence and transportation security echelons to place suspect Abdulmuttallab on a ‘no fly list.’ That would likely have prevented his boarding NWA Flight 253 on Christmas Day. But that is in retrospect wishful thinking in the face of politically correct blindness about the palpable threat of Islam Jihad doctrine that motivated Abdulmuttallab and his al Qaeda commanders to launch his foiled suicide bombing mission.


During the Cold War era, the CIA was fortunate to have as a Soviet intelligence ‘mole hunter,’ the fabled James Jesus Angleton, a veteran OSS operative. Angleton was not always politically correct about fulfilling his mission. He was fired from his post as CIA director of counter intelligence during the Ford Administration in the mid-1970’s for crossing too many ‘red lines.’  Angleton passed away in 1978. He knew the Soviet intelligence programs, their modus operandi and the threats they posed to infiltrate our intelligence agencies. He was professionally paranoid and effective in protecting this country. That set of skills and experience enabled him to connect the dots. Given this latest terrorist episode on Christmas Day, we need his current day counterparts like Coughlin and others filling key staff positions in our intelligence community who know the Islamic Jihad threat doctrine and the modus operandi of terrorist enablers. We need that essential element of HUMINT detection and analysis in our intelligence community to fight the long war of Islamic Jihad. The US reliance on technology to derive intelligence electronically via telephony, internet intercepts and satellite imagery coupled with ponderously inefficient transportation screening methods requires human intelligence to evaluate and warn us of threats by Islamic terrorists. As Poole’s comments about home grown terror threats in 2009 illustrate, the obsessive political correctness of the Obama and Bush Administrations has blinded us to the threat of Islamic Jihad doctrine. As a last line of defense, the Israelis by dint of decades of air safety security experience know that no sophisticated technology can supplant behavioral profiling as the ultimate means of intercepting potential terrorist bombers like Abdulmuttallab. The adoption of these suggestions would help to prevent future “systemic failures” in intelligence gathering, analysis and transportation security like the one on board NWA Flight 253 Christmas Day, 2009.


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