x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Obama orders inquiry into no-fly list

The US president orders a review of US no-fly lists after the botched Christmas Day terrorist attack.

Transportation Security Agency officers review boarding passes at a checkpoint inside Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Transportation Security Agency officers review boarding passes at a checkpoint inside Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN // The US president has ordered a review of US no-fly lists after a botched Christmas Day terrorist attack and demanded to know how a Nigerian man managed to board a Detroit-bound airliner wearing an explosive device. The databases used by US security agencies are under scrutiny after it emerged that the man who tried to blow up a jet from Amsterdam with 290 people on board as it prepared to land in Detroit was on one of their watch lists.

"There's a series of databases that list people of concern to several agencies across the government. We want to make sure information-sharing is going on," the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said. Barack Obama was expected to break his public silence on the thwarted attempt to down a US airliner early this week. As a political storm brewed over the attack, the White House warned Republican foes not to inject politics into the aftermath of the terrorist bid.

The president, vacationing in Hawaii, has not commented on television about the Christmas Day drama, apparently seeking to project calm and avoid the political point-scoring and panic seen after past terrorist incidents. But a source said Mr Obama will probably break into his holiday this week to address the US public on the attack, which revived fears of airborne terrorism sowed by the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The 23-year-old suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was added to a watch list of 550,000 names last month after his father told US Embassy officials in Abuja that he was concerned by his son's increasing radicalism. But he remained off a shortlist of 18,000 names from which the no-fly list of 4,000 is selected and flew to Amsterdam from Lagos on Christmas Eve and on to Detroit the following day with a valid US visa.

"The president has asked that a review be undertaken to ensure that any information gets to where it needs to go, to the people making the decisions," Mr Gibbs said. "The president wants to review some of these procedures and see if they need to be updated." Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, said that after his father's warning, Mr Abdulmutallab's visa should have been revoked, or at the very least he should have been given a pat-down at the airport.

"This individual should not have been missed," Ms Collins told The New York Times. "Clearly, there should have been a red flag next to his name." Mr Obama had also ordered a second review to examine how "an individual with the chemical explosive he had on him could get onto an airliner in Amsterdam and fly into this country," Mr Gibbs said. Travel jitters around the world were not helped on Sunday when anti-terrorism officers in Detroit rushed to a plane on the same route with the identical flight number after a Nigerian passenger shut himself in the toilet.

After interrogating the man, the FBI eventually dismissed the event as a "non-serious incident", but not before Mr Obama, on holiday with his family in Hawaii, was notified and called a new security briefing. US counterterrorism investigators, meanwhile, sought to determine if Mr Abdulmutallab was acting alone or had been sent on a deadly suicide mission by al Qa'eda. US law enforcement officials, quoted anonymously by US media, have said the suspect confessed once in custody to receiving specific training for the attack from an al Qa'eda bomb maker in Yemen.

But Mr Obama's top security official, Janet Napolitano, said there was "no indication" Mr Abdulmutallab was acting as part of a larger plot and warned against speculating that he had been trained by al Qa'eda. Serious ramifications for air travel were already in evidence on Sunday with passengers complaining of lengthy delays and missed connections due to increased security measures at several airports.

Billions of dollars have been spent on aviation security since the September 11 attacks, when commercial airliners were hijacked and used as weapons. Much of that money has gone towards training and equipment that some security experts say could have detected the explosive device Mr Abdulmutallab is believed to have hidden on his body. "Our system did not work in this instance," Ms Napolitano said on NBC's Today show yesterday, one day after having said the opposite. "No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way." The White House press office, travelling with Mr Obama in Hawaii, said early yesterday that the president would make a statement from the Kaneoho Marine Base in the morning.

Mr Abdulmutallab, handcuffed to a wheelchair and wearing bandages on both wrists, was arranged Saturday at the Michigan medical centre where he was treated for burns sustained while trying to detonate his device. He was moved to a federal prison west of Detroit on Sunday. A hearing to address a request by the US authorities for a sample of his DNA, scheduled for yesterday, was cancelled. The charge sheet said Mr Abdulmutallab tried to bring down the Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 using a device containing PETN, also known as pentaerythritol.

The explosive material was alleged to have been sewed into Mr Abdulmutallab's underwear and officials believe tragedy was averted only because the detonator failed to work properly, ABC News reported. Mr Abdulmutallab confessed that he had mixed a syringe full of chemicals with powder taped to his leg to try to blow up the flight, according to senior officials quoted by US media. * Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by the Associated Press