WASHINGTON — In late 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab spent weeks leading up to his planned demolition of U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flight 53 getting familiar with a cutting-edge bomb.
Though his “underwear bomb” fizzled due to faulty construction and alert passengers and crew, a terrorism innovation pipeline had opened for business.
Operating in the shadowy margins of Yemen, Abdulmutallab was trained, equipped and dispatched by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to detonate the bomb on Christmas Day over Detroit.
Abdulmutallab had been in possession of the device well before he tried to use it, the Transportation Security Administration recently revealed.
In fact, Abdulmutallab had the device for “over two weeks” before getting on the flight, TSA Administrator John Pistole told attendees at the Aspen Security Summit.
With ample time to practice, Abdulmutallab managed to get it past security and onto the plane.
The evolution of explosive devices and extremist operatives continues to worry TSA officials. Terrorists take their time perfecting deadly devices, shrouded by large swaths of space uncovered by the TSA.
And the quick spread of terrorist know-how — facilitated by social media platforms — has put deadly ideas in the hands of far-flung jihadist sympathizers.
A significant challenge
North Africa is an area of great anxiety for counter-terrorism officials all over the world.
“Libya is another worrying development,” says European Union Counter-terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. “We know that Libya is a transit hub for the Tunisians and the Moroccans that want to go and fight in Syria.
“It’s also a safe haven for fighters from Northern Mali pushed out by the French operation there. They’ve tried to hide and regroup in southern Libya.”
Not only is Libya the center of terrorist plotting and planning in the region, but shutting down the activity even after it’s been identified is nearly impossible, de Kerchove says.
Libyan national security operations never recovered from the bloody ouster of late dictator Muamar Ghadafi.
“It’s very difficult to find anyone with whom we can talk and rebuild the security sector,” de Kerchove says.
Abundant weapons stocks left over from the Ghadafi regime, and the flow of young innovative terrorist operatives into what counter-terrorism officials call “ungoverned space,” has left the door open for new attacks on the U.S. aviation sector.
“Our most significant challenge,” Pistole says, “is to make sure we are best equipped in terms of technology, personnel and training to detect and prevent somebody like that from getting on a flight either here in the U.S. and with our international counterparts in one of the hundreds of airports flying to the U.S.”
On July 6, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement confirming he “directed TSA to implement enhanced security measures at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States.”
The message specifically identified new concerns about electronic devices, saying: “During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cellphones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.”
Unorthodox terrorist methods receive a great deal of attention from the U.S. intelligence community, due in part to lessons learned from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He was responsible for Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb, as well as the printer cartridge bombs in 2010.
Recent intelligence activity suggests unusual terrorist tactics will remain a concern for years to come, according to U.S. officials.
“I see a continuing threat,” Pistole warns. “It’s a persistent threat that has not gone away, even with substantial effort to mitigate the threat overseas.”
The most troubling part?
“We have seen terrorists who are coming up with innovative designs, construction and concealment of particularly non-metallic improvised explosive devices that may be able to get through some airports particularly overseas,” Pistole says.
Learning from the past
A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, “The 9/11 Commission Report: Ten Years Later,” corroborated the concern about Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
According to the report, “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has advanced bomb making capabilities and has already attempted several attacks on U.S. aviation targets.
“While the various al-Qaeda spinoffs are primarily focused on regional conflicts, they hate the United States and will not forgo opportunities to strike at the U.S. homeland.”
Thousands of foreign fighters have flooded in and out of war-torn Syria in the last three years. U.S. intelligence and security officials are concerned that when they leave, they do so with renewed jihadist energy and possibly new plans to attack the U.S.
The original 9/11 Commission scolded U.S intelligence officials for a “failure of imagination” in not seeing the attacks coming.
The updated report has uncovered a disturbing trend: “Counter-terrorism fatigue and a waning sense of urgency among the public threaten U.S. security.”
Recently, an American — Moner Mohammad Abusalha — trained with Al-Qaida-linked forces in Syria, and slipped in and out of the U.S. without being detected.
He spent months in the U.S. before returning to Syria to launch a suicide attack on a restaurant in May.
With that and other cases in mind, the report from the Bipartisan Policy Center has issued a stark warning:
“As 9/11 fades into the rear-view mirror, we must keep in mind that terrorists have repeatedly targeted aircraft,” the report says. “It would be a mistake to retreat from post-9/11 gains or lose focus on this critical area.”