The details of the thwarted attack on Northwest 253 on Christmas are still emerging.  Nevertheless, there are several issues worth exploring even as investigations continue.  Many commentators seem to feel that this event requires a major rethinking of our approach to counter-terrorism. 

Before rushing into any significant decisions, however, we ought to reflect carefully on both the successes and failures highlighted by this plot.

Passenger Screening

First, there has been a great deal of discussion around the issue of passenger screening.  Attention has focused on two elements — the utility of terrorism “watch lists” and the potential and pitfalls of using full-body scanners on a more regular basis.  It has been argued, for instance, that Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been placed on the more restricted “no fly” list rather than the larger watch list.  The challenge here is that our current system of watch lists — based on name matches — is unwieldy and so prone to false-positives that aviation security specialists are loathe call for their expansion.  It isn’t just a matter of lack of transparency, though that is a concern.  It is that we have precious little way to know whether person A whose name is on some list is in fact terrorism suspect A.  Unless we can improve the reliability of watch lists and no-fly lists to reduce false positives, there will always been a reluctance to use them and resistance from the flying public.  We need, in short, to move to a biometric-based identity assurance system that turns the lists into a more precise tool for screening.

That said, while we should not jump to conclusions about the necessity of using full-body scanners, I find the counter-arguments less than compelling.  Accepting a small infringement on one’s modesty is a small price to pay for catching terrorists with explosives in their underwear.  Full-body scanners are costly, but non-invasive.  Their use won’t significantly slow down security screening.  They will provide significant additional capabilities.  It is really a pretty small price to pay.  Most people are more exposed on a trip to the beach.  And anyway, flying has to be seen as a privilege, not a right.  No one has to fly.

Finally, on the issue of passenger screening.  We will need, sooner or later, to accept a “two tier” system, where some individuals choose to go through regular pre-screening (akin to a security clearance) that will allow them to fly on short-notice and with minimal hassles at checkpoints, and others will need to face some waiting period and other restrictions — no one-way tickets, more invasive screening at checkpoints, etc.  The issue is that this sort of program has to be a government initiative, not a private sector one.  A for-profit system is doomed to fail simply because it will be seen as a class system.  Everyone should have access to the pre-screening opportunity, not just corporate customers.

Information Sharing

Second, it seems clear that we still have some problems with sharing information across government agencies.  We had all the information necessary to break up this attack before it occurred.  We’d intercepted chatter mentioning the use of a Nigerian to launch an attack, and we’d had the attacker’s own family report him as a risk.  It was just a matter of connecting the dots, and we didn’t do it.  Now, in practice, this is hard to do.  Presumably, the intelligence community was working on some of the connections, but in the final analysis, there was either an insufficient sense of urgency, a lack of effective communication, or some sort of human error.  My suspicion is that we lack the analytical bandwidth to connect all the dots generated by raw intelligence coming from multiple sources.  And if that is the case, we may simply be coming up against natural limits in terms of our ability to generate situational awareness on the threat.  But, at the very least, we need to do a thorough review on procedures in place, and in particular issues related to sharing of highly sensitive information, such as that gleaned from communications intercepts.

Ultimately, we have to deal with the fact that our intelligence community remains fragmented.  The creation of the NCTC as a fusion center for terrorism-related intelligence and the establishment of a Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to oversee the community may simply, in the end, be an insufficient form of integration.  The reality is that intelligence reform after 9/11 was a politicized process, and it may be worth revisiting some of the key assumptions that went into some of the key decisions.


Third, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ties to Yemeni radicals (also seen in the case of the Ft. Hood shooter) should put a nail, once and for all, into the coffin of the “safe havens” argument regarding our presence in Afghanistan.  There have been more plots linked to Yemen in the past six months than in the past six years to Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda and associated groups simply do not need Afghanistan to launch attacks.  They can plot and plan and train in any number of other countries.  The answer cannot be military occupation of anywhere and everywhere that an AQ affiliate sets up shop.

Nor, can we rely on “off-shore” means if that requires the use of military force.  It is simply not sustainable for the United States to use lethal force at its sole discretion anywhere around the world.  It will poison our relations with other countries, create an endless pool of new recruits, and create a tremendously dangerous precedent about the use of targeted killings under international law.  We just don’t want to live in a world where any state can at any time simply explode ordinances on the territory of another country.

Drone strikes — and SOF raids — are AT MOST a short-term exigency.  So the response to the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen can’t be solely to step up the military pressure.  We may have to do so in the short-run because we lack plausible alternatives.  But in the long-run there need to some alternatives, whether in the realm of better cooperation on capacity building or in terms of the development of a sustainable international legal framework for managing these threats.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was previously published at ASP’s Flash Point blog.