Yemen, Energy Crisis, and the Nigerian Crotch Bomber: The Privatization of Security and the Militarization of Society-Part I

Breakdown of Standard Security Procedures

nigerianOn Christmas Day, 2009, 23-year old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to blow up a plane on route from Amsterdam to Detroit by detonating a device stitched to his underwear. Fortunately, in yet another example of the level of sophistication of the new league of violent extremists, Abdulmutallab succeeded only in setting fire to his own crotch, before being apprehended by fellow passengers.

Security officials now reveal that the attack was planned by an al-Qaeda network in Yemen, where Abdulmutallab was apparently radicalized and trained, although he had been originally recruited, they say, in London. During his stint in London as a student, Abdulmutallab had been President of the Islamic Society at University College London.

The incident has been described as a major intelligence failure exposing the ongoing weakness of US and British security infrastructures and procedures. According to President Barack Obama, intelligence agencies were unable to “connect and understand” separate strands of information that would have alerted them to the attempted attack. “What we have here is a situation in which the failings were individual, organizational, systemic and technological,” said one US official. "We ended up in a situation where a single point of failure in the system put our security at risk, where human error was compounded by systemic deficiencies in a way that we cannot allow to continue."

More simply: no one is to blame.

British Security Surveillance

The problem is that the official narrative is already hopelessly littered with contradictions. Abdulmutallab was apparently first added to the UK Border Agency’s immigration watch list in May 2009 after failing to get a UK entry visa. “His refusal was not on national security grounds”, claimed an early BBC report rather earnestly, but because he had been tagged as a potential illegal immigrant because he had applied to study at a bogus college... This would, in theory, have prevented him from entering the UK - but not from passing through the country, if he was in transit to another country.

We now know that MI5 had him “tagged” as far more than a “potential illegal immigrant.” “The security services knew three years ago that the Detroit bomber had “multiple communications’ with Islamic extremists in Britain”, reported the Times of London. “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was ‘reaching out’ to extremists whom MI5 had under surveillance while he was studying at University College London.” And then, another crucial caveat: “None of the information was passed to American officials, which will prompt questions about intelligence failures prior to the attack.”

Unfortunately, it now turns out that MI5’s files on Abdulmutallab were, indeed, passed on to the Americans - despite their initial claims that they had received nothing. As the Scotsman reported: “On Monday, Downing Street revealed that intelligence on Abdulmutallab had been passed to the US authorities before the Detroit incident. That revelation prompted suggestions of a rift between Gordon Brown and the White House, and increased pressure on US security agencies to explain why they had failed to identify the alleged bomber.


The narrative from the American side has now also taken shape. Security analyst Tom Burghardt provides a meticulous overview: Abdulmutallab was placed in a “catch-all” US terrorism watch list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), containing 550,000 individuals. This by itself was not enough to put him on a no-fly list. But in September 2009, the National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly picked up intercepts among al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen planning an imminent terror plot by a Nigerian man. The intercepts were translated and disseminated “across classified computer networks”, including the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) run by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Then in November, Abdulmutallab’s father, a former top Nigerian government official, provided detailed information to the US embassy in Nigeria warning that his son was a violent extremist.

The father of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab talked about his son's extremist views with someone from the CIA and a report was prepared, but the report was not circulated outside the agency”, reported CNN. The information supposedly sat in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virgina, for five weeks. Yet it is not actually clear whether this was indeed the case: “But an intelligence official said that the son’s name, passport number and possible connection to extremists were indeed disseminated”, CNN continued. “State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said department staff did what they were supposed to have done by sending a cable to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington about the matter.”

But officials did not revoke his two-year multiple-entry visa, which was issued in June 2008” added the BBC. “Instead, Mr Abdulmutallab’s file was marked for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa.
And the State Department’s initial justification for this studious inaction? ... (drum roll)... the information received contained “nothing specific” that would have alerted authorities to the attack.

According to a US source familiar with terrorist watch list processes and procedures:

Once Abdulmutallab’s dad went to the embassy Nov. 19 and made a complaint, a report was generated and sent to NCTC

“Once NCTC receives such a report, an intelligence analyst checks to see if the person has any other associations in the database. If it’s the first time the person’s name is coming up, NCTC creates a record under the person’s name, as was done with Abdulmutallab, and that name is added to the TIDE [Terrorism Identities Datamart Environment] list. Agencies across the federal government have access to TIDE.”

“Once a person is added to TIDE, as Abdulmutallab was, an intelligence analyst determines if there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that he is engaged or intends to engage in a terrorist attack. If the person is found to have ‘reasonable suspicion,’ then an unclassified list with that person’s name on it is sent to the Terrorist Screening Center. That did not happen with Abdulmutallab because the intelligence analyst at NCTC did not find ‘reasonable suspicion’ based on the State Department report, which the source said consisted only of what the Nigerian man’s father said — that he was concerned about his son.”

Unfortunately, we now know that this explanation cannot wash. Only two days after the failed attack, Associated Press reported that: “Abdulmutallab came to the attention of intelligence officials months earlier though [than November 2009], according to a U.S. government official involved in the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is ongoing.”

 Unjoining the Dots

Indeed, highly specific MI5 surveillance and reports tracking Abdulmutallab’s contacts with UK extremists and his “journey” of radicalization as early as 2007, were passed onto US authorities contrary to early official claims; detailed NSA intercepts uncovered al-Qaeda plot preparations in Yemen led by a Nigerian; urgent warnings from his own father documented by the CIA culminating in an extensive dossier covering issues from his educational history to his plans to study Islamic law in Yemen. If standard security procedures had been followed, Abdulmutallab should have been in the system and red-flagged. As Burghardt rightly observes:

“Despite the fact that Abdulmutallab was denied re-entry into Britain, paid $2,800 in cash for his ‘ticket to Paradise,’ and had no luggage that normally would accompany a person holding a 2-year entry visa into the U.S., the erstwhile lap bomber scored a goal each time and eluded every intrusive ‘profile’ presumably in place to keep us ‘safe.’ Talk about a hat trick!

Available evidence suggests that Abdulmutallab should have landed on TSA's hush-hush ‘Selectee list’ for additional screening, or the agency's ‘No-fly list.’ And given NSA intercepts and a CIA biographical report on the suspect, this alone should have barred him from entering the country if ‘normal’ security procedures were followed. They weren't.”

Similarly, Mark Thompson of Time Magazine also noted, even disregarding the wider intelligence: “Abdulmutallab’s recent stay in Yemen, combined with his father’s warning and the fact that he paid cash for a one-way ticket and didn’t check any luggage, should have been sufficient to set off alarm bells.

President Barack Obama has now declared that this was a “systemic failure” that was “totally unacceptable.” But how could such a failure occur yet again, nearly 10 years after 9/11, which was blamed precisely on the same kind of “systemic failures” that should have been resolved given the billions of dollars of taxpayer’s funding already poured into a discredited intelligence community? Curiously, a Wired report in October 2009 noted that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was “shutting down two of its more important collaboration tools, called uGov and BRIDGE” – uGov being the most significant here:

“ODNI frequently stands up temporary analytical groups that take in analysts from agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the DIA and the National Security Agency (NSA); the uGov domain made it easy to give all of them a common platform... UGov has been especially popular among the large tranche of analysts who joined the community after 9/11. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) runs the network.”

So just as critical information was coming into the intelligence community about Abdulmutallab, the ODNI began to dismantle one of its most important interagency information-sharing initiatives.

Profiteering from Fear: The Brennan Connection

It gets worse. The wider context that has been totally ignored by mainstream media is the wholesale privatization of the US national security infrastructure.

As Burghardt also notes, the NCTC responsible for the terror watch list is “outsourced” to The Analysis Corporation (TAC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Global Strategies Group USA (GSG), a British firm. GSG USA’s President is John Hillel - a former contributing editor to the neoconservative propaganda outlet National Review, a defence policy advisor to George W. Bush during his first presidential campaign, and a Bush appointee to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs (2005-7). Previously the NCTC’s first director, John Brennan became CEO of TAC in November 2005. Citing investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, Burghardt goes on to note that TAC provides counterterrorism support to “most of the agencies within the intelligence community”. One of its biggest clients is the NCTC, and one of its first tasks was the creation of the TIPOFF terrorist database, which later became TIDE.

Now, Obama has appointed John Brennan to lead a “comprehensive interagency review” of travel security measures. But in the words of IntelNews, “A veteran CIA official appointed to review the US government’s defective terrorism watch-list system, was actually involved in designing it, and later helped sustain it through a lucrative private-sector contract.” The report continues, noting that “not only was Brennan part of the US National Counterterrorism Center team that designed the terrorism watch-list system, but he also helped sustain it while heading the Analysis Corporation, a scandal-prone private contractor charged with overseeing the watch-list system.

No conflict of interest then.                                                                                   

This analysis suggests that the failure to red-flag Abdulmutallab in advance was not a consequence of “nothing specific” in terms of intelligence information (the first narrative of explanation); not the consequence of systemic loopholes in a flawed travel security system that prevented the joining of dots (the second narrative of explanation); but was the consequence of a failure to implement existing normal security procedures. But given the Obama administration’s current official discourse focusing on the idea of a flawed system, Brennan’s review will no doubt call for more taxpayer’s money to be poured into the expansion and consolidation of exotic new surveillance, profiling and security powers – from which his own company, TAC, will no doubt reap lucrative dividends.

# # # #


AhmedDr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author and political analyst. He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has taught courses in contemporary history and international relations theory at the University of Sussex. His Doctoral thesis investigated the radicalization processes and dynamics of violent conflict in the context of hierarchical social systems in the modern world. Dr. Ahmed has also published extensively on international security issues, including The London Bombings; The War on Truth; Behind the War on Terror; and The War on Freedom. He has been an expert commentator for BBC News 24, BBC World Today, Al-Jazeera English, among others. He is currently advising the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on engaging British Muslim communities. Visit Dr. Nafeez’ website.

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  1. camusrebel says:

    Mr. Ahmed, welcome to the pot. It’s getting hot in here. You have been my hero since I read “The War On Truth”. There really are not adequate adjectives to describe that monumental tour de force. History will be very kind to you sir. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. johnbyrnes says:

    We don’t need profiling to identify Individuals like the Christmas-Day Bomber!

    Virtually all media outlets are discussing whether we should be profiling all Arab Muslims; I will in the one-page explain why we don’t need profiling. Over 15 years ago, we at the Center for Aggression Management developed an easily-applied, measurable and culturally-neutral body language and behavior indicators exhibited by people who intend to perpetrate a terrorist act. This unique methodology utilizes proven research from the fields of psychology, medicine and law enforcement which, when joined together, identify clear, easily-used physiologically-based characteristics of individuals who are about to engage in terrorist activities in time to prevent their Moment of Commitment.

    The Problem
    Since the foiled terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, the President has repeatedly stated that there has been a systemic failure as he reiterates his commitment to fill this gap in our security. This incident, like the Fort Hood shooting, exemplifies why our government must apply every valid preventative approach to identify a potential terrorist.

    The myriad methods to identify a terrorist, whether “no-fly list,” “explosive and weapons detection,” mental illness based approaches, “profiling” or “deception detection” – all continue to fail us. Furthermore, the development of deception detection training at Boston Logan Airport demonstrated that the Israeli methods of interrogation will not work in the United States.

    All media outlets are discussing the need for profiling of Muslim Arabs, but profiling does not work for the following three reasons:

    1. In practice, ethnic profiling tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability for a terrorist; it does not tell us who the next terrorist is!

    2. Ethnic profiling is contrary to the value our society places on diversity and freedom from discrimination based on racial, ethnic, religious, age and/or gender based criteria. If we use profiling it will diminish our position among the majority of affected citizens who support us as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

    3. By narrowing our field of vision, profiling can lead to the consequence of letting terrorists go undetected, because the terrorist may not be part of any known “profile worthy” group – e.g., the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh

    The Solution
    Our unique methodology for screening passengers can easily discern (independently of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, and gender) the defining characteristics of human beings who are about to engage in terrorist acts.

    The question is when will our government use true “hostile intent” through the “continuum of aggressive behavior” to identify potential terrorists? Only when observers focus specifically on “aggressive behavior” do the objective and culturally neutral signs of “aggression” clearly stand out, providing the opportunity to prevent these violent encounters. This method will not only make all citizens safer, but will also pass the inevitable test of legal defensibility given probable action by the ACLU.

    As our Government analyzes what went wrong regarding Abdulmatallab’s entrance into the United States, you can be assured that Al Qaeda is also analyzing how their plans went wrong. Who do you think will figure it out first . . . ?

    Visit our blog at where we discuss the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted terrorist act on Flight 253.

  3. Great article and a hearty welcome, Dr. Ahmed, to our humble salon full of what John Le Carre’ called “Disgusted Patriots”. I keep seeing the leitmotif of outsourced private contractors showing up in many of these stories, including my own. What I find most amazing is how our rhetoric of “Fostering Democracy” in the Muslim world squares with the real picture of facts on the ground. How can you claim to give Muslims a fair shake and then profile and publicly denigrate them? The sad fact is there IS a war going on in the Muslim world for the hearts and minds of over a billion people. The initial wave of Arab nationalists failed due to Western intervention and their own corruption, leaving the fundamentalist forces as clean by default. The facts, as seen in Iran, belie that image but you never hear of it. Combine that with our own support for many of the most virulent sects in both Shi’ite and Sunni branches and we merely create new enemies and choke of many of the internal forces of moderation in the Muslim world. Then the West gets the inevitabls blowback as we did in Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan today.

    Off-topic, I’d be interested in your take on this story from the Telegraph:

    Although, as Simcha Jacobovici pointed out in his documentary on the subject, the Pushtuns could actually be modern-day Israelites. When his documentary was first aired, I thought of the implications of 16 million Pashtun Israelite Muslims all entitled to the Right Of Return to Israel.

  4. James ONeill says:

    I realize that this is only part 1 and more is to come. In later segments you may wish to consider that far from “failing to connect the dots” which you comprehensively rubbish, one reason the so-called crotch bomber got as far as he did was that he was allowed to do so. The near catastrophe on that flight and the panic that it engendered in the US media provides a perfect storm of conditions for the US government to prepare the US public for expansion of its latest theatre of war (where it has been for the past 8 years) of Yemen.

  5. JamesLaffrey says:

    Well done, so far, Nafeez Ahmed!

    Your first section was very strong, with an ending that cut through the crap: “More simply: no one is to blame.” That’s been done so damn many times by the government: spread the blame so wide that nobody gets held responsible.

    But the ending of Part 1 peters out. As JamesONeill said, it wasn’t a failure of the system: crotchQaeda “was allowed to” get as far as he did.

    Precedent: In the early 1960s, Lee Harvey Oswald was groomed to be a patsy. His return from his “defection” to Russia was all too smooth. His placement in a job in the Book Depository shortly before the multi-shooter assassination was obviously an inside job. Prior to November 22, if Oswald’s mother had told the CIA or FBI of worries about her son, that report would have been suppressed — as was crotchQaeda’s father’s report.

    Since the 1960s, the CIA has continued and expanded what works for them. And so we have the boy with the faulty buttbomb allowed to fly. I submit to you that the bomb was purposely faulty, though the boy probably didn’t know that.

    That kind of operation is NOT NEW.

    Today I see a Reuters story that stinks of being a planted story by CIA.

    Just as the ButtBomber episode helps the current U.S. regime bomb Yemen, the Reuters story helps the current U.S. regime set up some African countries and Venezuela for ObombA-regime crimes. Why? Those countries are upstream-, downstream-, or as-yet-undiscovered oil countries. China has been making good business deals in Africa, so the U.S. is ramping up in reaction.

    I can’t stand it. I can’t stand the criminal U.S. regime. So, I’m going to do something about it.

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong. But isn’t aren’t TSA and Homeland Security working with Israeli contractors on security? From machines to profiling and more.

  7. Also, does it ever bother Obama to always say “The Homeland” instead of just the United States?

  8. Great comments,everyone!

    I’m getting ready to post Part II. It should be up in an hour or less. It gets even better:-) Nafeez may be here soon to comment…

  9. Hi everyone

    thanks for all the comments and feedback.

    on the issue of whether Abdulmutallab was allowed to do what he did by US authorities.

    as most readers of my work will know, any kind of speculation beyond what can be established as fact is not something I do. others are more than welcome to explore possibilities and ideas, but i find that doing so can often lead one up a garden path from which there is no return. that’s just my take.

    it’s important to think about these issues from a question of law, the burden of proof, innocent until proven guilty – the values that we are seeing eroded across western liberal democracies in the name of ‘security’. the problem is that blanket assertions of this kind cannot really be proven. we don’t have a paper trail. we only have anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, reported via third-party sources. this is a basis on which to build a reasonably coherent picture, but not to make an incriminating case. what we can establish as fact is that normal security procedures that should have been followed, were not. logically, and in the absence of further detailed evidence, this could be explained in ways other than that the US government allowed Abdulmutallab to do what he did. For one thing, when we say “US government” – who exactly do we mean? Obama himself, personally? John Brennan? The CIA? The NSA? The State Department? All of them together? Just one of them? Or a cross-agency network inside all of them? And if any/all of these are responsible, then how can we prove this?

    The fact that we cannot even remotely answer this question illustrates the problem with coming to a blanket conclusion. We can identify, in an extremly rough way, where some specific agencies or authorities seem to have lapsed. We can demonstrate that the nature of the lapse cannot be explained in the conventional way. This points to the politicization and corruption of the intelligence system at the very least, but does not automatically prove more than that. We will be stronger if we focus on what we know, rather than what involves speculation, demanding answers and accountability, not getting bogged down in the ever-growing multiplicity of competing theories and narratives.

  10. My two cents: yes it is definitely best not to speculate past the facts and I know very little about security and law enforcement procedures–but how many times have I seen stuff like this–“normal procedures” failing in such a complete and suspicious way and other journalists writing that it is “incompetence” or something? From the top of my head this sort of thing was repeated about 9/11 with the FAA and NORAD procedures, the majority of the alleged 9/11 hijackers’ red-flagged visa applications and warnings of their suspicious flight training within the FBI. And I think something that was on BFP by Peter Lance about the Fort Hood shooting and “Ali the American:”

    “I think you or I would have a better chance of winning the Powerball lottery, than an Egyptian major in the unit that assassinated Sadat would have getting a visa, getting to California, getting into the Army and getting assigned to a Special Forces unit. That just doesn’t happen.”

    Thanks for writing this Mr. Ahmed, I was interested in what you said in the documentary “Zero.”

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