This question somehow got lost in the mutual backslapping exercise that took place yesterday after the arrest of Faisal Shahzad. The deputy director of the FBI claimed that “53 [hours] is a good number” in terms of making an arrest, and he’s right. But counterterrorism is supposed to prevent having to count those hours after an attempted attack, and suddenly we have seen a string of attacks. As the Washington Post reports, Shahzad should have already been on Homeland Security’s radar:
The Obama administration Tuesday praised law enforcement officials who responded to and dismantled a car bomb in New York City last weekend and arrested a suspect late Monday. But the fact remained that Faisal Shahzad was allegedly able to train with terrorists in Pakistan, return to the United States to assemble a car bomb in Connecticut and park it in Times Square without anyone in the nation’s vast counterterrorism apparatus knowing anything about it. …
Obama ordered a major review of watch-list procedures and failures that had also allowed the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to retain a valid U.S. visa. Officials said Tuesday that the criteria for searching and questioning individuals had been tightened since then but that the administration is still discussing whether to alter its standard of “reasonable suspicion” of terrorism connections.
Even if new criteria had been in place, however, officials agreed that it was unlikely that questions would have been raised over Shahzad’s apparently taking several trips to Pakistan, where his parents and other family members lived. Naturalized in April 2009, he lived with his family in Connecticut and until last year was an employed homeowner. He broke no laws and did nothing to call attention to himself.
Nothing? Well, let’s review the data on that for a moment. He quit his job in June of last year and let his house get foreclosed. Then he traveled to Pakistan for five months before suddenly returning in February, without a job but apparently flush with cash. Apparently our intelligence services didn’t pick up on the fact that Shahzad had traveled to Peshawar, an area known for its terrorist networks, or had inexplicably gotten wealthier on his return to the US.
Granted, many people travel abroad, and DHS can’t track them all. But how many Americans travel to Pakistan each year? Return home after five months in Pakistan? Start doing nothing but cash business despite not having a job and losing their home? And all of this within just months of becoming naturalized, apparently through marriage?
Instead of patting themselves on the back, this administration should be looking very hard at DHS and asking themselves why suddenly a string of attackers managed to get to actual attempts instead of getting stopped before they had the chance. Are they doing that? Not exactly. They’re too busy blame-shifting Shahzad’s ability to get on the plan to Emirates Air, who pushed back yesterday:
At 12:30 p.m. Monday, Shahzad’s name was added to the terrorism suspect database at the National Counterterrorism Center and airlines were alerted through a “Web board” — a secure government site with an updated list of passengers who should be blocked from flying.
By 4:45 p.m., Shahzad’s passport number was added to the Web site, officials said. The government and Emirates airline pointed fingers at each other over what happened next. The company said that when the list was updated, Shahzad, who booked the flight at 6:30 while traveling to the airport, was not yet on the manifest. Emirates officials said they informed the government that a last-minute, one-way ticket had been reserved and paid for in cash, but got no response. Officials said they had no record of that message.
Over the last six months, we’ve had too many close calls after several years of success in stopping terrorist plots against American citizens. Something has changed, and it’s not for the better. Could it be that a sudden emphasis on law-enforcement approaches and procedures has our CT agencies too gun-shy to act?
Update: Apparently the Joint Terrorism Task Force took notice of Shahzad back in 2004, according to a New York Times profile of Shahzad. If so, then why did they not notice his five-month sojourn in Pakistan in 2009-10?