Time has published a pretty good wrap-up of the various failings of security that allowed the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to board the flight from Amersterdam to Detroit with enough high explosive to bring down a loaded airplane sewn into his underwear — notwithstanding the warnings from his father and the other circumstances that should have tipped off our security agencies. The Time article makes clear that, at minimum, we need to improve our cumbersome system for identifying potential terrorists and sharing information about them.
The continuing story about the failed effort by the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit will be interesting to follow in the next few days. It is pretty clear that it was mostly due to luck and faulty detonation that we avoided another deadly terrorist attack that would have killed hundreds, It also is clear that the unsuccessful attack exposed some serious flaws in our air travel security and some ambiguous standards that, in this case, seemed to operate in a way that made us less secure. Finally, we also have been warned that there are many other suicide bombers ready to try to succeed where the U-Trou Bomber failed. We should take that warning to heart and act promptly to shore up our security apparatus.
President Obama has ordered a thorough review of our air travel security, which I think is the right first step. (It certainly is a more reassuring approach than Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s absurd initial statements that the “system worked,” despite the obvious failings that allow Abdulmutallab to go forward with his plot.) Although it would have been better if our systems had foiled this attempt in the first instance, it is crucial that we not allow recriminations about the current deficiencies in our systems to prevent us from fixing the problems. From what I’ve read, I think we need to make sure that the State Department and its embassies, which received the warning about the potential danger from Abdulmutallab’s father, share such information with the Department of Homeland Security. We also need to communicate more effectively with our allies; in this case, Great Britain apparently had Abdulmutallab on some kind of watch list, yet he nevertheless was able to board a plane to the United States. I also think that, as a rule of thumb, if someone’s father makes the effort to warn us that his son or daughter may be a dangerous potential terrorist, we should accept that as “reasonable grounds” to put the individual on a no-fly list and revoke any visas they may have. Let’s also not be afraid to give a meaningful pat-down search to someone who buys their ticket with cash and doesn’t seem to be carrying luggage consistent with their announced travel plans.
It appears that this particular incident was made possible only because multiple “red flags” were disregarded. It’s time to start paying attention to those red flags, and acting on them.