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Airline Incident Highlights Yemeni Threat and What Does it Really Take to Get on the No Fly List

In Crime, World on December 27, 2009 at 10:39 am

It was November 13, 2008 and then-CIA director Michael Hayden was speaking before the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC think tank.

“Yemen is another country of concern, a place where al-Qa’ida is strengthening,” he said. “We’ve seen an unprecedented number of attacks this year, 2008, including two on our embassy. Plots are increasing not only in number, but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening. Al-Qa’ida cells are operating from remote tribal areas where the government has traditionally had very little authority, and they’re being led or reinforced by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Well, yesterday, the government charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with trying to bring down a flight from Nigeria to Detroit by using explosives.

According to The New York Times and other publications, he told authorities he had picked up the explosive device in Yemen.

And while Nigeria provides authorities with enough reasons for concern, Yemen takes it up a notch.

In September, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, travelled to Yemen where he delivered a letter from the President promising to help their “fight against terrorism.”

On Thursday, that help took the form of intelligence that allowed Yemeni forces to strike a gathering of Al Qaeda members, killing some 30 of them, possibly including an American citizen who supported their cause.

And in October 2000, the Yemeni port of Aden was the site of an Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, which claimed the life of 17 sailors.

As the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out in a 2005 report, Yemen “was second only to Saudi Arabia in being the source of soldiers for the international Islamist brigade that fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and that gave birth to Al Qaeda” and “dozens of Al Qaeda operatives, including senior officials, may be at large in Yemen.”

Meanwhile, investigators are trying to find out everything they can about Abdulmutallab and whether his associations with Al Qaeda were operational or merely aspirational.

What is known is that his father, a Nigerian banker, was so concerned about his son that last month he went to the US Embassy in Nigeria to warn them about him.

While Abdulmutallab made it into the government’s database as a result, there wasn’t enough information, apparently, to place him on the no-fly list, which is surprising given how many people who clearly are not terrorists or suspects, seem to have made the list over the years.

An interesting question, though, is how much information the US government shares back and forth with other countries because Britain apparently barred Abdulmutallab from the country last year after he tried to extend a visa by applying for a bogus visa.

I think it’s safe to presume these are among the things that will be looked at in January when Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, holds promised hearings on the incident.

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