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Brian Till
27 Jan 2010
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Lessons from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab


This holiday season's flummoxed terrorist attack should remind of us several important things. First, it affirms much of what we should already understand about airline security: The regimen we go through while boarding planes is largely ineffectual ritual meant to allay fears more than protect lives. It's a process geared toward protecting against the last attack, as opposed to preventing what's to come.

A classified report that found its way to a USA Today reporter in October 2007 showed just how woefully bad airport screeners are at their jobs. Screeners failed to find 75 percent of explosives and bomb parts that disguised agents attempted to sneak through metal detectors and scanners at Los Angeles Airport. At Chicago O'Hare, security missed 60 percent. The only other airport scored by the study was San Francisco International; it did better than the aforementioned, but still let 20 percent of materials slip through.

More disconcerting still is the degree to which the cargo beneath your feet is screened. A fraction of a plane's hold is filled with luggage; the larger share belongs to commercial cargo. In August 2007, almost six full years after 9/11, President Bush signed into law a mandate requiring the Department of Homeland Security to create a system to screen that freight. As of February 2010, 50 percent of that cargo should be checked for explosives and dangerous material. Yes, while flight attendants have been demanding passengers keep their hands in sight and their iPods holstered, half of the material below has been screened. In the best-case scenario, that is. Getting materials aboard a plane has always been among the less challenging obstacles faced by those who wish us harm.

Among the more difficult hurdles should be getting cleared to travel to the U.S. This became our most enhanced, and most heralded, security wall after 9/11.

It is largely because of the perceived strength of this system that analysts have previously recognized the disparity in threats faced by Western Europe and the Untied States. Radicalized populations in major European cities — London, in particular — could be contained by carefully monitoring who flew west.

The fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose father phoned to warn the American embassy in Nigeria to explain the credible threat his son posed, was able to get cleared to fly to the United States is far more terrifying than anything we've seen in recent years. It is much more damning than the travesty at Fort Hood, the cell that assembled in Denver, the JFK airport plot or anything else to come along in some time.

Secondly, this nearly successful attack should remind us that the practice of terrorism is often a rather affluent endeavor. The architects of the major attacks of the past two decades have been better educated than the average American; it's quite likely that a jihadi's biography — like Farouk's — will include global travel and an excellent education, often in engineering or medicine.

Barack Obama faces an incredible opportunity with this near miss. As Bush with FEMA following Hurricane Katrina, he can either allow a lagging government apparatus to remain lacking, or respond robustly, with meaningful review, firings, and adjustments and enhancements. As Lawrence Wright's seminal "The Looming Tower" chronicled in the wake of 9/11, knowing who posses a threat is only half the battle. Communicating that threat effectively through a dense bureaucracy to prevent carnage seems to be even more difficult. We knew that Farouk was a substantial threat with the pedigree and biography matching those who have hit us effectively before, yet we failed to act accordingly. What, Mr. President, are you prepared to do about that?

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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