Later today President Obama is scheduled to talk about the latest details from the security review of the failed Flight 253 attack.
National Security Adviser James Jones is predicting that Americans will feel “a certain shock” by the results of the review.
But in the meantime, as Josh noted on the Editors Blog, we thought it would be worthwhile to compile what has been publicly reported about what U.S. government agencies knew about Abdulmutallab, including the supposed “warning signs” that were missed.
One highlight of our survey so far: the oft-repeated claim that Abdulmutallab bought a one-way ticket appears to be unsubstantiated, and in fact contradicted by at least two government sources. The original source for the one-way claim is not clear.
But the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and the Dutch government have each said that Abdulmutallab’s ticket, purchased in Ghana, was round-trip. The New York Times even ran a correction Dec. 30 saying it had erroneously described the ticket as one-way in a story, when it was in fact round-trip.
In May, the British government denied Abdulmutallab’s request for a visa renewal because “he applied to study at a bogus college,” according to the BBC, citing Home Secretary Alan Johnson. After the denial, he was placed on a watch list whose members can transit through the UK, but not enter the country. But according to the New York Times account of Johnson’s BBC interview, he “was vague about whether officials in the United States had officially been informed of the action, although he said he doubted that there had been a ‘hiccup’ in the process.”
The National Security Agency in August picked up “conversations” among leaders of “Al Qaeda in Yemen discussing a plot to use a Nigerian man for a coming terrorist attack,” according to unnamed government officials cited by the New York Times. The Times says that’s the same month Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen “and apparently soon began preparing for the Christmas Day attack.” The NSA circulated the intel but that it’s “unclear which agencies received the information,” the newspaper reports.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was briefed in October by a Saudi official on the underwear bomb technique used by Abdulmutallab, according to Newsweek. Muhammad bin Nayef had survived an assassination attempt over the summer by a bomber the Saudis believed used the underwear technique.
In October or November, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, Abdulmutallab’s father, met with U.S. embassy officials in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, after becoming worried that his son had become radicalized. A Dec. 30 Times piece says the embassy meeting was in November, while a Dec. 27 piece says it was in October. The AP says November.
In response to the father’s embassy visit, officials dispatched a “Visas Viper” terrorism warning to the National Counterterrorism Center, the Times reported. It describes the memo as referring “to the father’s statement that his son had fallen under ‘the influence of religious extremists based in Yemen’ but does not directly say that Mr. Abdulmutallab is a terrorist or is planning an attack.”
Time magazine reported last week: “According to a source close to the family, it was an alleged threat to blow up an American plane that apparently alarmed his parents and supposedly resulted in his father going to warn the U.S. embassy.” That sentence is full of qualifiers (alleged, apparently, supposedly) that suggest the magazine may not be totally confident of its source’s claim. It’s also not reporting that Abdulmutallab’s father actually told the embassy of the plane plot — only that knowledge of the plot alarmed his parents. Still, this is the only report we’ve seen that suggests Abdulmtallab’s father actually knew of the specific plot.
Two US officials told Newsweek that the father “was worried that the young man had been spending time with extremists from Yemen, but he said nothing about terrorism” (emphasis ours). The magazine adds: “He wanted the Americans to help him get his son back.”
The BBC quotes a Dec. 29 written statement by Abdulmutallab’s father saying that he voiced his concerns “to the Nigerian security agencies about two months ago and to some foreign security agencies about a month-and-a-half ago, then sought their assistance to find and return him home.”
Apparently in response to the embassy visit, the National Counterterrorism Center in November added Abdulmutallab’s name to the 550,000-person “catch-all” Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), according to the Washington Post. His name did not make it to any of several much smaller flight security lists, the Post reported.
The AP quoted a Nigerian official, Civil Aviation Authority chief Harold Demuren, saying that Abdulmutallab bought a round-trip ticket with cash at the KLM office in Accra, Ghana on Dec. 16. The $2,831 ticket was from Lagos, Nigeria, to Detroit via Amsterdam, he said. The return date was said to be Jan. 8, the Guardian quotes the same Nigerian agency as saying. A CBS report refers to a “scheduled two-week trip,” which would be in keeping with the Jan. 8 return date. And a Dutch government report described by the International Herald Tribune (via Nexis) said that Abdulmutallab “had a round-trip ticket purchased in Ghana.”
However, multiple news outlets and commentators have asserted Abdulmutallab had a one-way ticket. That includes Time, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Journal news pages, and Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. None of those outlets cite a source for the one-way ticket claim. The New York Times actually ran a Dec. 30 correction saying that an earlier piece “referred incorrectly to the plane ticket used by the suspect. It was a round-trip ticket, not a one-way ticket.”