The Radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

By Hosenball, Mark; Thomas, Evan et al. | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab


Hosenball, Mark, Thomas, Evan, Isikoff, Michael, Newsweek


Byline: Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff, and Evan Thomas

A young man checks in at the airport in Nigeria with a ticket to America bought with cash, and only carry-on luggage. More than a month before, his father, a wealthy banker, has visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, worried that his son has gone missing and may be hanging around with Yemeni-based extremists. The National Security Agency has picked up intelligence that Al Qaeda in Yemen is planning to use an unnamed Nigerian for a terror attack on the United States. The man has been denied a visa to enter Britain, but he has a valid multiple-entry visa for the United States.

In the movie version, lights would be flashing on computer screens in a darkened room in a nondescript building in the suburbs of northern Virginia, and intelligence officials would be on the phone asking urgent questions about the young man. In real life, nothing of the sort happened. There is, indeed, a plain, unmarked building outside of Washington where analysts of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) sift through intelligence, looking for threatening signs and patterns. Their operations room even looks like something out of the movies. It was designed with help from the Walt Disney Co., according to intelligence officials involved with the planning. But when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas morning with a bomb sewn into his underpants, the U.S. government did nothing to stop him. Possibly the worst terrorist strike against the U.S. since 9/11 was averted only by luck and the bravery of other passengers and the airplane's crew.

Officials in the intelligence community are quick to point out that the facts always look clearer in hindsight, and that they are overwhelmed with false leads and sheer noise every hour of every day. But the breakdown in the system may be worse than has been publicly acknowledged. In the months before the Christmas attack, there were many warning signs coming out of Yemen. In early October, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric based in Yemen, posted a provocative message on his English-language Web site: "COULD YEMEN BE THE NEXT SURPRISE OF THE SEASON?" Al-Awlaki seemed to hint at an upcoming attack that would make Yemen "the single most important front of jihad in the world." Al-Awlaki, who once had contacts with two of the 9/11 hijackers, is the same imam who had been exchanging e-mails with the U.S. Army psychiatrist who later killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. He is a now a central figure in the investigation into the Detroit attack: prior to the Christmas incident, the National Security Agency had intercepted communications between a phone used by al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells NEWSWEEK. The official says al-Awlaki may also have been involved in other intercepted communications indicating that Al Qaeda was planning to use an unidentified "Nigerian" in an attack over the holiday season.

The same month that al-Awlaki was predicting a "surprise," John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, received an alarming briefing at the White House from Muhammad bin Nayef, Brennan's Saudi counterpart. Nayef had just survived an assassination attempt by a Qaeda operative using a novel method: the operative had flown in from the Saudi-Yemeni border region with a bomb hidden in his underwear. The Saudi was concerned because he "didn't think [U.S. officials] were paying enough attention" to the growing threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen, said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the briefing. (The official, like others quoted in this article, did not want to be named talking about sensitive information.) Intelligence experts now strongly suspect that Nayef's attacker and Abdulmutallab had the same bomb maker in Yemen. Altogether, portents of trouble coming from Yemen seem to have been gathering in the months and days before Christmas. …

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