Like most of you, I have been following the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old Nigerian man who attempted to ignite a bomb on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. As facts begin to emerge, we can now start to discuss the immigration issues that arise in the case. There seem to be more questions than answers at this point and no doubt Department of Homeland Security and Department of State officials are reviewing how Mr. Abdulmutallab was able to fly to the United States. Here are some initial questions.
1.In May 2009, Abdulmutallab's UK visa was revoked when it was learned that the university he claimed he was attending was fictitious. He was placed on a British watch list after that. Why is information like this not shared between countries, especially close allies?
2. Abdulmutallab's father, a well-respected finance official in Nigeria, reported on November 19th to the US Embassy that his son was involved in radical Islamic activities in Yemen. The report was deemed credible enough to open an investigation and the Embassy notified other Embassies and the US counterterrorism community. Why was Abdulmutallab's visa at least not suspended until at least the investigation of the claim was completed?
3. Abdulmutallab bought his airline ticket in Ghana on December 16th with almost $3000 cash and gave no contact information. How did this not raise alarm bells?
4. On December 24th, he boarded an international flight with no luggage. How was this very suspicious behavior not noticed?
5. Abdulmutallab's name was placed in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the American government's terror watch list. 550,000 names are on that list. However, despite being added to that list, Abdulmutallab's visa remained unaffected and individuals on this list are permitted to fly and are not subject to secondary screening. Why?
6. Lagos, Nigeria has a notoriously insecure airport. Why did the Amsterdam airport fail to properly re-screen a passenger coming from that location? I just flew out of Amsterdam last month and all flight screening is done at each gate by private contractors. The US has done away with using private contractors for airport security and screening is centralized in each terminal. Should the US impose tighter standards on allowing planes in to US airspace if passengers are not going through more rigorous checks?
EIght years have passed since 9/11. At the beginning of this crisis, the government claimed that it needed time to get computer systems in place and to work on data sharing arrangements so that it could more effectively prevent incidents of just the sort that happened last week. If there is anything positive to come from this scary event, it at least has reminded us that we still have a lot of work to do.
Of course, rather than focusing on trying to prevent terrorists from getting on airplanes, it seems like our government has reacted by imposing silly rules that will not make us safer. Making passengers show up four hours before a flight to check in, barring carry on bags and then asking passengers to sit for an hour before landing without even being able to read a book will only make traveling so unpleasant that people will do anything possible to avoid air travel (which I suppose is a way to reduce the odds of being a victim of terrorism since out of business airlines don't fly planes).
You can also assume that the extreme xenophobes will call on us to ban foreign tourists to keep us safe. If you think that the recession of the last year has been fun, that's a solution you'll find appealing.