THE WARNING FROM ABDULMUTALLAB’S FATHER…. The New York Times reported yesterday that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, contacted U.S. officials recently with fears about his son’s increasingly extremist religious views.
It prompted Marty Peretz to complain that Abdulmutallab’s father’s concerns should have been taken more seriously. Peretz insisted that “Washington had real details about an Islamic maniac and did nothing about it.”
I can appreciate why this thinking may seem reasonable at first blush. U.S. officials were warned about Abdulmutallab’s radicalization, but they didn’t do much in response. Now that we know Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airplane over Michigan, it’s easy to sit back after the fact and complain, “Boy, someone really should have listened to that guy’s father’s warning.”
But it’s worth appreciating the larger context, and understanding why the warnings didn’t prompt immediate, wide-reaching action.
When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria reported concern over his son’s “radicalization” to the U.S. Embassy there last month, intelligence officials in the United States deemed the information insufficient to pursue. The young man’s name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten.
The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.
“It’s got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there,” one intelligence official said.
The report entered on Abdulmutallab, 23, after his father’s Nov. 19 visit to the embassy was “very, very thin, with minimal information,” said a second U.S. official familiar with its contents.
We’re dealing with a situation in which Abdulmutallab’s father, justifiably concerned, felt like his son might become dangerous. He didn’t have any information about a specific plot, but he wanted the authorities to be aware of the potential problem. U.S. officials added Abdulmutallab’s name to a list — a rather long list.
And therein lies the point. U.S. officials learn about all kinds of potentially dangerous people, all over the globe, every day. Most of these people have never committed an act of terrorism, and never will. A tiny fraction will consider violence, a tiny fraction of them will actually attempt mass murder. It’s literally impossible to launch investigations into every one of them. It’s not that officials “had real details about an Islamic maniac and did nothing about it”; it’s that officials had vague details and lacked the capacity and wherewithal to take immediate action.
There’s a lot of information out there, and results like this one are practically unavoidable. Blaming U.S. officials for not leaping to action in response to the father’s concerns is a mistake.