Intelligence agencies in the United States under fire as airport security undergoes review worldwide

President Barack Obama criticises intelligence agencies for security failings as airport security undergoes review worldwide. The UN food agency suspends operations in south Somalia. A suicide attack in Dagestan kills six people. Egyptian police clash with Gaza aid activists. Britain and France reopen their embassies in Yemen. All this and more in today’s security briefing.

Rukeyya Khan
6 January 2010

President Barack Obama has criticised the United States' intelligence agencies for failing to disrupt an attempt to blow up a US-bound passenger place on Christmas day. In a news conference on Tuesday, Obama said agents had sufficient information to uncover the 25 December plot to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam but 'failed to connect the dots.' The President reportedly described the failing as a 'screw-up' during a meeting in the White House situation room, adding that 'we dodged a bullet but just barely.'

Obama said the system of so-called watch lists of potential suspects would be reviewed in light of the attempted attack. US authorities have already imposed stricter screening regulations for US-bound airline passengers from Yemen, Nigeria and twelve other countries, including possible full-body pat-downs, searches of carry-on bags, and full-body scanning. Countries that have been placed on the watch list have accused the US of 'hostile action' and 'discrimination'. With 13 of the 14 nations cited by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) being majority Muslim-majority states, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation, said the procedures amounted to ethnic profiling.

Airport security is undergoing review worldwide including in several European countries where a combination of profiling, intelligence and better technology are being considered to avoid a security lapse of a similar kind.

The openSecurity verdict: Obama's tough stance has attempted to correct the perception that he is being soft on national security. The president has promised a review to assess the security failings associated with the failed plot and changes in the government's terrorist ‘watch-list’ system in order to identify ‘specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong.’ Speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday, senior state department officials told CNN that the government has lowered the threshold for information deemed important enough to put suspicious individuals on a watch-list or no-fly list, or have their visa revoked.

Obama’s criticism of the intelligence agencies has come at a crucial moment with the CIA recently losing seven of its officers in Afghanistan. Reports have emerged that the suicide bomber who killed eight people at a US base in eastern Afghanistan was a triple agent. The finding has dealt a significant blow to confidence in counter-terrorism initiatives through effective intelligence gathering.

Yesterday, Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan for the US military and its NATO allies, described American intelligence officials there as "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

US intelligence failings in Afghanistan have been exacerbated with the knowledge that US spy agencies and the State Department had information about 23-year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab but never collated the information to put him on a no-fly list. Critics say the CIA should have done more to flag the intelligence which included Abdulmutallab's own father warning US officials of concerns about his son. Whilst the episode is being viewed as a significant intelligence failing, airport security measures have also come under fire. Abdulmutallab is said to have been allowed on to an aircraft at his point of debarkation without a passport.

Several European governments, including Germany, France and Spain, are reviewing their airport security measures. In Britain, a meeting between the Department for Transport officials and airport owners about implementing tougher security measures has been scheduled for today. The British government has tried to allay privacy fears over the introduction of full-body scanners at British airports and side-stepped warnings that their use is illegal under child-protection laws. The first machines will be in use at Heathrow within three weeks, alongside those already in use at Manchester and Glasgow but all airports are now expected to have them by the end of the year.

Critics argue that full-body airport scanners are only as effective as the people operating them and that the explosive device smuggled in the clothing of the Detroit bomb suspect would not have been detected by body-scanners set to be introduced in British airports. Yesterday, the British Home Secretary announced that scanners cannot provide a comprehensive solution on their own and must be used in tandem with passenger profiling techniques to avoid airport delays. The method of profiling has sparked controversy with many arguing it violates fundamental human rights, will alienate the Muslim community and will systematically discriminate against people of a middle-eastern appearance.

World Food Programme suspends operations in south Somalia

The UN food agency has suspended aid distribution to approximately one million people in southern Somalia following threats of violence against its staff, according to officials. The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday that attacks by armed groups have made it 'virtually impossible' to continue humanitarian food distribution, adding that the suspension is its biggest shut-down in years. The agency has cited threats and ‘unacceptable demands’ from al-Shabab fighters who control 95 percent of the territory where aid operations are now suspended.

Various branches of the Shabab, the Islamist militants who control much of southern Somalia, presented local offices of the food program with a list of eleven demands in November. These included a 'security fee' of $20,000 every six months, the replacement of all female staff except those engaged in healthcare and a ban on alcohol and foreign films. The Shabab also pressed a demand that the agency not import food during the harvest season in order to encourage the development of local agriculture. Several previous Shabab statements accused the agency of undermining local agriculture and importing poor quality food. The WFP however has reiterated that even in the best of times, Somali farmers only supply about 40 percent of the food needed in the country.

The agency hopes to resume operations as soon as possible. Its claims have been dismissed by al-Shabab who deny demanding security payments.

Suicide attack kills six in Dagestan

A suicide bomber has killed at least six policemen and wounded another fourteen people on Wednesday in Russia's volatile southern region of Dagestan. The region is experiencing a conflict that local leaders say is fuelled by a potent mixture of clan feuds, poverty, Islamism and heavy-handed tactics by law enforcement agencies. The increase in violence in the Muslim-majority North Caucasus has become a focal-point for concern in Russia with many analysts forecasting that the violence could spread to Russia's mainland. Reports suggest that the suicide bomber drove a car into a traffic police depot in Dagestan's capital city of Makhachkala but was blocked by another police vehicle before exploding.

Egyptian police clash with Gaza aid activists

Egyptian security forces clashed today with a pro-Palestinian convoy led by the British MP George Galloway at the Mediterranean port of el-Arish as it tried to deliver aid supplies into the Gaza Strip. The convoy of 198 trucks and more than 500 supporters left London a month ago hoping to enter Gaza despite the Israeli economic blockade.

A spokesman for the activists said some 50 members of the convoy were injured in a scuffle with Egyptian police overnight Tuesday. Scuffles erupted after Egypt refused to allow the trucks entry. According to reports, some 2,000 Egyptian riot police used water cannons and beat up activists demonstrating at the port. Reuters reported that Egyptian police threw stones at the crowd and arrested seven demonstrators, while some members of the convoy held four harbour police officers.

Elsewhere, Israeli military officials said today they would consult more closely with their legal advisers during future combat operations after a wave of international criticism over last year's war in Gaza. Although the Israeli military has said it is investigating incidents from the war, both the Israeli government and Hamas have rejected an independent inquiry that a UN investigation has recommended. The threat of further investigation still remains, however. An Israeli military visit to Britain was cancelled last week for fear of arrests over war crimes allegations, further stoking diplomatic tensions between Israel and Britain.

Britain and France reopen their embassies in Yemen

The UK and France have reopened their embassies in Yemen, after they were closed earlier this week in response to a possible al-Qaeda threat. The US reopened its embassy in the capital Sanaa on Tuesday. It said successful counter-terrorism operations by the Yemeni armed forces had addressed a 'specific area of concern.' International correspondents in Sanaa say they saw military jets flying over the capital on Monday afternoon and into the evening, suggesting some kind of operation was under way. Reports emerging on Wednesday suggest the capture of a key Al-Qaeda chief believed to be behind the threats that prompted foreign missions to close their doors.

Elsewhere, the United States has suspended  Guantanamo prisoner transfer to Yemen. President Obama has come under political pressure from some US lawmakers to not send any more prisoners to Yemen as a result of revelations that a would-be bomber on a Detroit-bound plane had received al-Qaeda training in Yemen.

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