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Was the Attempted Terrorist Attack on the Detroit-bound plane an Isolated Incident?

It is tempting to look at Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s foiled attack on a Detroit-bound airplane as an isolated incident, but the frightening fact is that the Nigerian suspect is far from alone.

Since 2001, there have been 28 failed terrorist attacks against the United States. That averages about three foiled attempts per year. But in 2009, there were six failed attempts the most in one year. The fact that six attacks were foiled is a cold comfort. In stopping the twenty-eighth, America just got lucky. The plan of attack on the Detroit-bound plane didn’t work and the passengers and crew stopped the assailant.

Despite the warning signs, authorities did nothing to impede Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s travel. There were enough red flags to warrant that Abdulmutallab receive secondary screening which might have kept him off the plane, even though he wasn’t on the official list that mandated secondary screening. He was rejected for a visa to England, flew without luggage, paid for his ticket in cash, was a young person but not on a student visa, and was missing documents; these should have been red flags. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. government had intelligence from Yemen that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack.

Additionally, in 2009, not every terrorist attack was stopped. In November, Nidal Malik Hasan gunned down a dozen of his fellow soldiers and shot a score more despite the fact that there were red flags galore that he was someone to worry about. Others were recruited in the U.S. to attack abroad, including five young men from northern Virginia who went to Pakistan; youth from Minneapolis who were enticed to fight Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate; and David Coleman Headley, who allegedly helped to plan the Mumbai attacks and other potential strikes.

In short, the system has failed a number of times in 2009. To make matters worse, Washington hasn’t shown that it cares very much. It doesn’t like to call the war a war. “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror,’ a Defense Department memo explained last spring. “Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.'”

But a war by any other name is just as deadly.

The Obama Administration simply doesn’t seem to care that some powers granted by the Patriot Act are due to expire in two months. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security is pushing for a mass amnesty bill related to illegal immigration that would do nothing to thwart terrorists.

Detroit is a wake-up call. It highlights a failure in counterterrorism operations, and a failure in leadership. The President needs to work with Americas intelligence agencies and better coordinate intelligence activities, analysis, dissemination, and follow-up.

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