As the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack proves, it is integral for the Obama Administration to address the vulnerabilities that continue to exist in the U.S.’s aviation, maritime and border systems, a former government official said.
The good that has come out of the foiled Christmas Day attack is that it helped concentrate the public and administration on the urgency of the threat of terrorism, said Clark Kent Ervin, the director of the homeland security program at the Aspen Institute, at a Cato Institute event analyzing the first year of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism policy.
President Obama was consistent in saying that the intelligence system failed and that there were dots that could have and should have been connected, Ervin said.
These failures were not only clear in hindsight, but also at the time, he added.
Ervin said the National Security Agency possessed intercepted information that a Nigerian was being prepared for attacks in the United States and that at least one, possibly more, intercepts mentioned Umar Farouk, the first two names of the Christmas Day terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Abdulmutallab’s father, a well-respected Nigerian banker, also went to the Embassy in Nigeria and talked to two government agencies, the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, regarding concerns about “his son and his increasing radicalization” and trip to Yemen, he added.
With this information, coupled with the knowledge that Yemen is a “hot bed of terrorism” and al Quaida’s fixation on aviation, the intelligence community should have been on high alert, but “the intelligence community didn’t conceive of the possibility that al-Quaida would attack the homeland,” which was a failure of imagination, Ervin said.
A main question the Obama administration and the intelligence community must address is why would a 23-year-old young man “be willing to sacrifice himself,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and current policy counsel on national security, immigration and privacy at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Abdulmutallab was around 14 years of age on 9/11, raised in wealth in a country that was not directly part of the conflict that created al Quaida, so the U.S. should be “concerned why this 23-year old kid, over the last 8 years, decided he personally is an enemy of the U.S.,” German added.
Jacob Shapiro, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, said it is easy to look at the Christmas attack and only focus on the failures, but “there is also a deep success … the security system, in terms of intelligence and screening that our government has put in place since 9/11 meant that the group conducting this (attack) ended up with a relatively incompetent and not that highly skilled or well-trained operative … and the screening system that was in place forced them (the terrorists) to use a very cumbersome and ultimately ineffective device,” which ultimately gave the passengers on the plane time to disrupt the plot.
When dealing with the current threat of terrorism, part of the problem is “what al Quaida has learned and what other terrorist groups have learned is that they don’t even have to succeed in the terrorist event anymore. They can claim credit for any failed terrorist attempt, and it gets the same reaction,” said German.
Shapiro added, another problem is that the name al Quaida now has a “certain cache within the Islamist-extremist community.”
The name, al Quaida, is “useful for fundraising purposes and getting recruits, but it’s also very useful for governments … if (a government) labels the group and events in the country as al-Quaida related,” the U.S. government has a strong incentive to come to the country’s side with “(financial) aid, intelligence assistance, military aid,” Shapiro added.
There is a mentality that one terrorist organization, al Quaida, exists and is responsible for all attacks, which is not true, he added. Other organizations, like the Taliban and domestic terror organizations, are also serious threats.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and professor and director of the security studies program at Georgetown University said, the U.S. is seeing “self radicalized individuals who are … taking the initiative to seek out groups, seek out training and seek out help.” Al Quaida Central is only part of the treat – individuals are now seeking out groups, including individuals in the U.S.
“Terrorism is a multifaceted threat to this country,” German said.
Most empirical studies of terrorists have found that terrorism is “not driven by religious fervor or ideology nearly as much as it is by personal experience, including things like alienation from the community and racism,” German added referring to domestic terrorist incidents involving white supremacy groups and anti-government militias.
Ervin said, while the U.S. Muslim community is better integrated and educated, homegrown terrorism is also a threat the Obama Administration and intelligence community must take seriously.
“Terrorists come in all sizes, stripes and socio-economic backgrounds,” Ervin added. It is not necessarily true if someone is affluent and well educated the person is not a potential terrorist and a threat to the U.S.