The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat

The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat

The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat

The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat

Excerpt

As I began this book, the United States confronted its most important terrorist threat since 9/11—the attempted suicide bombing of a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. “This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face and the nature of those who threaten our homeland,” said President Barack Obama in his first comments on the attempt to kill three hundred passengers aboard the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” explained the president after conferring with his top counterterrorism officials. “It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had.”

The intelligence lapses that had allowed twenty-three-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, carrying undetected explosives and a syringe in his underwear, included a CIA report indicating that the wealthy young Nigerian had recently met with al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Yemen known to be planning an attack on the United States. Following his arrest, Abdulmutallab told FBI agents that he was trained in Yemen by members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who had equipped him with the explosive device and showed him how to conceal it. AQAP instantly released a statement claiming responsibility for the operation, calling Abdulmutallab a “hero” and a “martyr” who had successfully outwitted American intelligence. Within the body of intelligence that U.S. analysts failed to “integrate and understand” was the uncomfortable fact that AQAP’s commander—a thirty-six-year-old Saudi named Said Ali al-Shihri—was a former detainee at the U.S. military garrison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Intelligence also included a statement from Shihri’s family who attributed his extremism to the five years he had spent in detention at Guantanamo. In effect, the Christmas Day plot was orchestrated by a former inmate radicalized in a U.S.-operated prison.

Apart from these intelligence lapses, the Christmas Day plot should have come as no surprise to U.S. intelligence. Five months earlier, in July 2009, following the discovery of several highly publicized terrorist plots originating from U.S. prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters, “The American people would be surprised at the depth of the [terrorist] threat,”

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