President Barack Obama on Sunday ordered an urgent review of how US authorities use terrorist watch-lists to foil attacks on US targets after a Nigerian tried to destroy a transatlantic passenger aircraft with an explosive device he smuggled on board.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, undergoing treatment for burns sustained in Friday’s abortive attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, figured on a US database of people with suspected terrorist connections but had not been added to a 4,000-name no-fly list. He has been charged with trying to blow up the airliner as it was coming in to land.
Transatlantic air travellers faced delays on Sunday after the US stepped up security requirements for all in-bound aircraft.
The review of the US system of terrorist watch-lists was “to make sure there’s no clog in the bureaucratic plumbing”, Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said on Sunday.
Mr Obama, on holiday in Hawaii, also ordered the Homeland Security department to examine screening at airports.
The Christmas day attack, foiled by passengers who subdued the suspect after he ignited the device, followed a warning by Mr Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser that Yemen was among the countries al-Qaeda groups might use to mount operations against the US.
John Brennan, a 20-year counter-terrorism veteran, told the Financial Times shortly before the averted attack that Yemen was a serious concern. He also warned the next attempt against the US might not be a centrally directed “spectacular” attack but a smaller-scale one, possibly by an al-Qaeda “franchise” in the Middle East or Africa.
Nigerian media have quoted the suspect’s father, Umaru Mutallab, former chairman of First Bank, as saying he alerted authorities to a potential risk posed by his son some months ago. Officials have acknowledged the detained Nigerian, who obtained a multi-entry tourist visa to the US in London, was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database.
Janet Napolitano, US Homeland Security secretary, said the names of more than 500,000 people with possible terrorist connections figured on the database, established after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001. “It doesn’t seem there was more information to put him to no-fly. You need information that is specific and credible if you’re going to bar people from air travel,” she said.