WASHINGTON – U.S. border security officials learned of intelligence concerning the alleged extremist links of the Christmas Day airline bomber as he was airborne en route to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed, officials said in disclosures Wednesday.
The new information shows that border enforcement officials came close to uncovering the alleged plot involving the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, despite previous intelligence failures that were criticized by President Barack Obama this week.
“The people in Detroit were prepared to look at him in secondary inspection,” a senior law enforcement official said. “The decision had been made. The (database) had picked up the State Department concern about this guy – that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen.”
If the intelligence had been detected sooner, it could have resulted in the interrogation and search of Abdulmutallab before he boarded the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, according to senior law enforcement officials, all of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
“They could have made the decision on whether to stop him from getting on the plane,” the senior law enforcement official said.
Nonetheless, the revelations underscore the complexity of the intelligence and passenger screening systems that are the subject of comprehensive reviews that will be revealed today by the administration.
Even if U.S. border enforcement officials had learned of the Nigerian’s alleged extremist links in time, it is not clear the intelligence was strong enough to cause Dutch police to search him or to block him from flying, officials said. But it could have led to intensified scrutiny that may have uncovered the plot.
The threshold for requiring a foreign visitor to undergo special scrutiny upon arrival in the United States is considerably lower than criteria for stopping a passenger’s departure overseas, according to current and former law enforcement officials. That is why border security agencies rely heavily on terror watch lists of suspects seen as urgent threats, officials said.
“The public isn’t aware how many people are allowed to travel through the U.S., who are linked, who intersect with bad guys or alleged bad guys,” a national security official said. “It makes sense from an intelligence perspective. If they are not considered dangerous, it provides intelligence on where they go, who they meet with.”