The Abdulmutallab Dots that Should Have Been Connected
The notion that U.S. intelligence should have “connected the dots,” and caught Abdulmutallab, isn’t going away. This is a typical example:
So you’d need come “articulable facts” which could “reasonably warrant a determination” that the guy may be a terrorist based on his behavior. And one assumes his behavior would have to catch the attention of the authorities, correct?
Well let’s see.
- His dad, a former minister in Nigeria, informed the US embassy there that his son had been radicalized (the dad obviously had a reason for concern).
- US intelligence had been following him for a while, dubbing him “the Nigerian” (one assumes there was a reason).
- He was on a watch list (one assumes there was a reason).
- He had been banned from Britain (yup, one assumes there was a reason).
- The British intelligence service had identified him to our intelligence agencies in 2008 as a potential threat (sigh, uh, yeah, reason).
- He’d just visited Yemen, an al Qaeda hotbed (given the first 5, one can reasonably guess at the reason).
- He bought a one-way ticket to the United States in Africa through Europe (red flag 1).
- He paid cash (red flag 2).
- He checked no luggage (red flag 3).
…are those or are those not “articulable facts” which should have “reasonably warranted a determination” that this guy fit the profile of someone who is usually up too no good? No?
Kevin Drum responds to this line by line:
…the more we learn, the less this seems to be holding water. Let’s go through the list one by one:
- Jim Arkedis, a former intelligence analyst: “For the record, 99 percent of the time, walk-in sources to U.S. Embassies are of poor-to-unknown quality. That includes friends and family members who walk into the embassy and claim their relatives are potential dangers. Why? Family relations are tangled webs, and who really knows if your uncle just might want you arrested in revenge for that unsettled family land dispute.”
- This is true. But we didn’t have a name, only a tip that “a Nigerian” might be planning an attack.
- Yes. But as the LA Times puts it, he was on a list of half a million people with “suspected extremist links but who are not considered threats.”
- Yes, but not because of any suspected terrorist ties. From the New York Times: “[Home Secretary Alan] Johnson said Mr. Abdulmutallab’s application to renew his student visa was rejected in May after officials had determined that the academic course he gave as his reason for returning to Britain was fake….The rejection of the visa renewal appeared to have been part of a wider process initiated by British authorities this year when they began to crack down on so-called fake colleges that officials said had been established in large numbers across Britain in an attempt to elude tightened immigration controls.”
- No, they didn’t. From the Telegraph: “Diplomatic sources said that the Prime Minister’s spokesman had intended to refer to information gleaned by MI5 after the Christmas Day incident following an exhaustive examination of records going back through Abdulmutallab’s time in Britain up to October 2008.”
- No, it was a roundtrip ticket.
- Nigeria and Ghana (where Abdulmutallab bought his ticket) are largely cash economies. Andrew Sprung tells us that Abdulmutallab “would certainly raise no alarms by paying cash.”
- This is apparently true.
I’d go even further on point 9. I fly 240,000 miles a year, and I almost never check luggage. And that goes double when flying in or out of the Third World. And I’ve also read that he didn’t have a coat, something else that — living in Minneapolis — I regularly see.
As I keep saying, everything is obvious in hindsight. After the fact, it’s easy to point to the bits of evidence and claim that someone should have “connected the dots.” But before the fact, when there are millions of dots — some important but the vast majority unimportant — uncovering plots is a lot harder.
I wrote in 2002:
The problem is that the dots can only be numbered after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to draw lines from people in flight school here, to secret meetings in foreign countries there, over to interesting tips from foreign governments, and then to INS records. Before 9/11 it’s not so easy. Rather than thinking of intelligence as a simple connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Or a random-dot stereogram. Is it a lion, a tree, a cast iron stove, or just an unintelligible mess of dots? You try and figure it out.
It’s certainly possible that intelligence missed something that could have alerted them. And there have been reports saying that a misspelling of Abdulmutallab’s name caused the Department of State to miss an alert. (I’ve also heard, although I can’t find a link, that some database truncated his name because it was too long for the database field.) And I’m sure that a lot of the money we’re wasting on full body scanners and other airport security measures could be much better spent increasing our intelligence and investigation capabilities. But be careful before you claim something that’s obvious after the fact should have been obvious before the fact.