Terror Suspect Abdulmutallab and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report

Minority Report (2002 collection)Image via Wikipedia

On December 26, FBI Detroit released a statement on the Nigerian national charged with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines aircraft. Excerpts from the press release: 
A 23-year-old Nigerian man was charged in a federal criminal complaint today with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines aircraft on its final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Christmas Day and with placing a destructive device on the aircraft.
According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian national, boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam, Netherlands on December 24, 2009 and had a device attached to his body. As the flight was approaching Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Abdulmutallab set off the device, which resulted in a fire and what appears to have been an explosion. Abdulmutallab was then subdued and restrained by the passengers and flight crew. The airplane landed shortly thereafter, and he was taken into custody by Customs and Border Patrol officers.

A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a high explosive. Further analysis is ongoing. In addition, FBI agents recovered what appear to be the remnants of the syringe from the vicinity of Abdulmutallab’s seat, believed to have been part of the device.
Abdulmutallab required medical treatment and was transported to the University of Michigan Medical Center after the plane landed. He will make his initial court appearance later today.  

Interviews of all of the passengers and crew of Flight 253 revealed that prior to the incident, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for approximately 20 minutes, according to the affidavit.  Upon returning to his seat, Abdulmutallab stated that his stomach was upset, and he pulled a blanket over himself.  Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire. Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames. Passengers reported that Abdulmutallab was calm and lucid throughout. One flight attendant asked him what he had had in his pocket, and he replied “explosive device.” 

Read the whole thing here.
The father of this terror suspect apparently went to warn the US Embassy in Nigeria: U.S. government officials tell The Associated Press that the Nigerian man charged with trying to destroy a jetliner came to the attention of U.S. intelligence in November when his father went to the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, to express his concerns about his son.
The NYT reported that Mr. Abdulmutallab was issued a regular visitor’s visa by the United States Embassy in London in June 2008, the administration official said. There was no “derogatory information available” on him at the time he applied, and he was granted a two-year visa, which is still valid, the official said. He had traveled to the United States once before, to Houston in August 2008.

Via Laura Rozen of Politico: A TIDE record on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was created in November 2009; there was insufficient derogatory information available on the subject at that time to include him in the TSDB or its “no fly” or “selectee” lists. Thus, he was not “watchlisted” as of 25 December 2009.

This one from the TIDE Fact sheet:  The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is the US Government’s (USG) central repository of information on international terrorist identities as established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. TIDE supports the USG’s various terrorist screening systems or “watchlists” and the US Intelligence Community’s overall counterterrorism mission. The Terrorist Identities Group (TIG), located in NCTC’s Information Sharing & Knowledge Development Directorate (ISKD), is responsible for building and maintaining TIDE.

The TIDE database includes, to the extent permitted by law, all information the U.S. government possesses related to the identities of individuals known or appropriately suspected to be or have been involved in activities constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, with the exception of Purely Domestic Terrorism information. A non-exclusive list of types of conduct that will warrant both entry into TIDE and terrorist screening nomination includes persons who:

  • Commit international terrorist activity;
  • Prepare or plan international terrorist activity;
  • Gather information on potential targets for international terrorist activity;
  • Solicit funds or other things of value for international terrorist activity or a terrorist organization;
  • Solicit membership in an international terrorist organization;
  • Provide material support, i.e. safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons, explosives, or training;
  • Are members of or represent a foreign terrorist organization.
Federal agencies nominate individuals for inclusion in TIDE based on evaluations of intelligence and law enforcement terrorism information.
But what if the individual does not fall into any of these nomination categories? 
Truth to tell this kind of reminds me of the conundrum in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. What do you do with a culprit that has not yet committed a crime? Do you arrest him or her before he commits a future crime thereby protecting the public from all prospective harm?  How do you stop, even arrest an individual when “there is insufficient derogatory information available?”

In Dick’s literary world, in the interest of efficiency (crime down at 99.8%) and a mega-security complex, through a prophylactic Precrime structure, “men were seized and arrested accused not of crimes they have committed, but of crimes they will commit; asserting that these men, if allowed to remain free, will at some future time commit felonies.”

The Precrime technology, as far as I know, is still in the realm of science fiction, but if a regular guy was able to convinced our government that a TV channel transmits signals to Al Qaeda — is it too far off to imagine that some creative soul can sell some similar preterror technology before too long?  My fear is for the real world, where Philip K. Dick’s world is no longer inevitable; not in the interest of lean management and efficiency but in an emotional knee jerk reaction out of fear of the prospect of real harm and havoc in our shores. Such dark thoughts to end the year …

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