Monday, December 28, 2009

Learning from the Christmas Attack

On Christmas Day, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, boarded a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. He had one thing in mind: to murder everyone on the plane.

Luckily for the people on the aircraft, his explosive chemical concoction failed, and courageous passengers took him into custody. Because of their courage, we don’t need to sift through a destroyed aircraft and a bunch of body parts to learn what happened. The experts will undoubtedly produce recommendations and policy changes based upon what this incident reveals about weaknesses in air travel security, but we know some things even now.

First, this is not just about the terror organization called Al Qaeda. The threat is much larger. The bloody hands of Islamist terror reach out from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Europe, from Africa, even from right here in our backyard, perhaps from a local mosque where a radical imam preaches a hatred of the West that most Americans can’t fathom.

We also need to dispel the stereotype that radical Muslim extremists are underprivileged and poorly educated. Like Osama bin Laden and the doctors who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Scotland, they can be college graduates who grew up with wealth and privilege. Abdulmutallab’s family is among Nigeria’s elite. His father, the chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria and a former minister in the Nigerian government, sent him to the finest schools in Nigeria and England, where the terrorist studied engineering. So wealthy is the family that they maintain a $4 million flat in London’s posh West End, where Rolls Royces are more common than Hondas are in most neighborhoods.

Just as the terrorists don’t fit the common stereotype, we should also remember that most Muslims are not pro-terrorist. Most are law-abiding and good religious people who want nothing more but to live in peace. These folks, however, aren’t the threat. Those who have created a perverted form of Islam that characterizes the West as its evil enemy are. They, unfortunately, dominate governments and sway public opinion in the Islamic world. Their ideology of hate must be confronted and those who believe in tolerance encouraged.

Perhaps the most important lesson we must learn is that we must put the gathering and dissemination of accurate intelligence ahead of concerns about political correctness. If we intend to prevail or even just survive in this battle against radical Islam, we must put an immediate and complete end to political correctness – period! In this case, as with Major Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood terror assassin, we had information indicating that there may – just may – be a problem with these people, yet one way or another, they slipped through a crack. That this may have happened because some in positions to take preventive action felt they would be stigmatized as not politically correct and damage their careers is appalling.

The airlines and the Transportation Safety Agency, which reports to the Department of Homeland Security, follow a rigid set of guidelines to insure our safety and security in and around the airports and on aircraft. There is, however, a general suspicion that these rules are subjectively applied. We have all heard stories of a 90-year-old woman being searched before boarding a flight while a passenger who would fit the identical profile of Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 bombers, is less likely to be confronted because no one wants to be subjected to an allegation that they were racially profiling.

In the case of Major Hassan, although people were alarmed by his behavior, no one acted, and he was able to pull off a jihadist attack, killing 14 people. For Abdulmutallab, the procedural error occurred after his father went to the United States Embassy in November, concerned about his son’s radical beliefs and worried that he might attempt to do something bad to the United States.Abdulmutallab was allowed to board the KLM flight without even a second round of screening.
There are at least three separate watch lists that the U.S. security agencies maintain and monitor to track suspected terrorists, terror sponsors, and terror sympathizers. Evidently, Abdulmutallab was on the list that is supposedly the most minimum threat level. According to the authorities, his being on that list did not call for any additional screening over and above any other airline passenger. If that’s true, then what exactly is that list for? More importantly, if his father did, in fact, notify the U.S. Embassy of his concerns, then why did that not raise a flag somewhere, that this man should be looked at? If Dad thinks you’re nuts and murderous, then maybe you are and someone should look into it.

In the past 36 hours, I’ve watched all the reports on CNN, FOX, and NBC, about airports enhancing their security measures, and looking at new screening equipment and approaches to security in the airline industry.

This is insanity. If there’s anyone in the security business who is surprised by this attempted attack, they need to find another line of work. If they don’t get it by now, they aren’t going to.

El Al Airlines, Israel's national carrier, is by far the safest airline in the world despite its being one of the biggest terrorist targets in the world. Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv is the world’s safest airport, so why aren’t we mirroring their security protocols?

Passengers at Ben Gurion are spared the hassle of having to remove their shoes and don’t have the luxury of curbside check-in. Here in the United States, a passenger is barely spoken to, with the exception of continuous instructions on getting through the screening process. In Ben Gurion, however, you’re spoken to constantly. From the second you enter the terminal, security and airline agents alike are looking for clues that raise a red flag, such as bulky clothing or nervousness. There are also profilers who monitor your behavior and interview travelers for anything out of the ordinary. If they are intrusive or politically incorrect, it’s just too bad. Their approach saves lives, and to them, that’s what counts.

This morning, I listened to an airline official say that, based on this recent event, they were now looking at screening equipment that could x-ray clothing to determine if something were concealed beneath it.

That’s great, but that equipment has been out for years, so why isn’t it being used now? The answer is the same as to why we aren’t using Israeli type profilers at the airport. We don’t want to insult anyone or hurt their feelings.That’s the wrong approach, if we intend to do the job that has to be done. We have to concentrate on security first, and feelings second.

But changes inside the security profession aren’t enough. We, as a country, have got to understand that the terror threat is real and is here to stay, and we need to proactively take steps to address it. President Barack Obama’s order for a review of the watch lists requirements and protocols couldn’t come at a better time. In addition to this and the improved screening equipment, we must understand the threat posed by radical Islam.

In numbers, those who seek to destroy us through terror are smaller than the millions America faced in World War I and II, but, unlike those enemies, who could be recognized on the battlefield by their uniforms, our present enemy exploits civilian guise. There is no single face or uniform or color or ethnic background that identifies them. The single trait they all share is a sick and demented hatred that drives them to use themselves as the weapons of their war and to happily die in its cause. This makes them formidable enemies, but not enemies than can’t be resisted.

We need to fix the flaws in a system that has to be as close to perfect as we can possibly get it because this enemy will keep on coming.

This time we were lucky. The next time, we may not be.