2009 Christmas Plot Shows U.S. Failure to Adequately Curtail Terrorist Travel

2009 Christmas Plot Shows U.S. Failure to Adequately Curtail Terrorist Travel

by Janice Kephart

Janice Kephart, who was a counsel to the 9/11 Commission, explains how failures to follow recommendations of the Commission led to vulnerabilities the Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was able to exploit -- and others still could.

Ms. Kephart writes:

Al Qaeda's four plane operations succeeded when four hijacking pilots with four or five support hijackers per plane violently took over four U.S. domestic flights between Boston and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. The results were suicide crashes into four U.S. sites, with a total of 2,974 fatalities. Two pilots (one twice) and two hijackers had received immigration secondary screening coming into the United States, for a total of five secondaries, but only one was removed.

Two Al Qaeda plane operations were attempted by individuals in-flight, but failed after the terrorists' clothing carrying the bombs caught fire. The plots were foiled by attentive passengers and crew, not the border or aviation architectures abroad and supported by the United States. These are: (1) the Richard Reid shoe bomb attempt on December 21, 2001, on a flight from Paris to Miami (he had been refused boarding the prior day due to poor behavior in secondary screening) and (2) the December 25, 2009, attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He also received secondary screening at check-in, but it did not result in further scrutiny or a no-board decision.

Introduction

One of the key phrases from the 9/11 Commission report (p. 384; the report is available as its own database on lexis.com) is "for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons." The 2009 Christmas Day plot aboard Delta Flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has made clear to the world that not only are travel documents as important as weapons to terrorists, but executed terrorist plots aimed at the United States on 9/11 and subsequently have incorporated air travel as an essential component. What we have learned about terrorist travel has been significant. Incorporating those lessons learned into an operational architecture has improved border and aviation security significantly, but has yet to edge close enough to ensuring it.

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Janice Kephart is a former border counsel to the 9/11 Commission and currently serves as National Security Policy Director at the Center for Immigration Studies. Another version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Aviation Security International.