Detroit plot triggers US intelligence shake-up

President Obama unveils new reforms of the US security bureaucracy in the wake of a White House report criticising intelligence failures linked to the attempted Christmas Day bombing. A leading Iranian opposition politician is attacked by supporters of the regime. In the Philippines, fighting erupts between Muslim rebels and the armed militia thought to be behind the massacre of 57 people last November. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Oliver Scanlan
8 January 2010

In a national address, US President Barack Obama announced reforms to America’s security apparatus designed to prevent a recurrence of the Christmas Day airline bomb plot. Speaking to the nation in the wake of a White House inquiry into intelligence failures surrounding the plot, President Obama said that the critical errors occurred in analysing and linking disparate information within the system, rather than in intelligence collection itself. According to Obama, the US “had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack”.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a flight bound for Detroit on Christmas day, was listed among the 550,000 suspected terrorists on a US database. He was not, however, on a list that would have entailed more thorough security screening on the flight from Amsterdam. As a consequence, measures to increase information sharing and analysis feature prominently among the security reforms announced by President Obama.

These changes include strengthening the terrorist watch list, wider distribution of information related to security risks between different agencies and improved analysis of this information. The problem appears to be, at least partly, the continuing lack of inter agency co-operation within the US vast intelligence and security bureaucracy, despite wide ranging reforms carried out in the wake of 9/11. These measures will aim to address these failings further. A comprehensive package to bolster US airport security was also among the steps unveiled by President Obama, including the recruitment of hundreds of additional air marshals and improved screening technology at US airports.

The openSecurity verdict: In his announcement, Obama’s admission that ‘the buck stops with me’ clearly indicates the potential domestic political ramifications of the intelligence failures surrounding the Christmas Day bomb plot. There will be questions from political opponents as to whether the changes announced by the President go far enough in ensuring that there can be no repeat of Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing.

Reform of the intelligence community was a key recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission, who criticised the disjointedness of the intelligence community in the run up to the attack on the twin towers This lack of co-operation was primarily due to the very different tasks and priorities of the CIA and the FBI; simply put, the FBI’s job is to arrest terrorists whereas the CIA is tasked with attempting to ‘turn’ them; recruiting them to spy for the agency and then playing them back into their organisation.

It is clear that the failings in the Abdulmutallab case were of an entirely different order. If anything, they resulted from the success of the post 9/11 reforms. Increased co-operation has lead to a glut of information in the system, with a lack of infrastructure to analyse it. There is also the question over whether the additional bureaucracy imposed after 9/11 is not partly counterproductive. Only time will tell whether the new reforms will be necessary, and President Obama has called for a rejection of a ‘siege mentality’ by Americans. Worryingly, the only thing that can prove this either way is another attempted terrorist attack, which may or may not meet with greater success than Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day attempt.

Gunmen attack Iranian politician 

On Friday Mehdi Karroubi, an Iranian opposition politician, was shot at in his car during a visit to the town of Qazvin. According to, the website of Karroubi’s party, he was visiting the town to attend a mourning ceremony for opposition protesters when he was attacked in the building where he was staying by a crowd of about 500 people. They comprised both civilians from nearby villagers and members of the feared basiji militia, which gained new infamy internationally last June for its role in brutally suppressing riots that broke out in the wake of Iran’s disputed Presidential election.

The crowd were apparently chanting pro-regime slogans and invoking the name of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Members of the crowd are reported as saying that ‘our town is not a place for hypocrites’. After four hours, the intervention of riot police allowed him to escape, but as he was fleeing his car was shot at. Karroubi himself is apparently uninjured. Like former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, Karroubi stood as a reformist candidate in last June’s elections, which resulted in a wave of anti-government protest unseen in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Karroubi seconded Mousavi’s position that the election results were rigged by the regime.

Fighting breaks out between Muslim rebels and Philippino militants

Officials in the Philippines reported on Friday that fighting had broken out between Muslim rebels and members of an armed group thought to be responsible for the massacre of 57 people last November. The fighting began on Thursday night in Maguindanao and lasted for four hours, during which time five people were killed and an unknown number wounded. The clashes triggered an emergency deployment of Philippine troops to Maguindanao to prevent the violence spilling over into the neighbouring region of Mindanao.

Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim rebel group in the country, clashed with an armed militia, thought to be 2,000 strong, under the control of the influential Ampatuan clan. The clan was recently subject to a crackdown by Philippino security forces, during which government troops arrested hundreds of militia members and seized more than 1,000 assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons. Major General Anthony Alcantara said that this outbreak of violence may adversely affect ongoing peace talks with the Muslim rebels.

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