Why Was the Accused Bomber Banned in Britain, Not the U.S.?

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U.S. Marshals Office / EPA

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day

Both the U.S. and Britain are key terrorism targets. Yet while the British barred Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from their country, the U.S. simply added his name to a list of 550,000 names and let him board a flight filled with nearly 300 other people bound for Detroit. Why? The contrasting ways the two nations dealt with the 23-year-old Nigerian engineering student before he allegedly tried to blow a Northwest/Delta airliner out of the sky on Christmas Day will make it tougher for U.S. officials to maintain that their terrorist-watch program is operating smoothly and efficiently.

The British government placed Abdulmutallab on its watch list in May after he cited a nonexistent school in his application for a student visa. "If you are on our watch list, then you do not come into this country," Alan Johnson, Britain's Home Secretary, told the BBC on Monday, Dec. 28.

Abdulmutallab's father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, a former Nigerian Government Minister, had warned the U.S. government six weeks ago that his son, a devout Muslim, had dropped out of sight and appeared to be growing more radical. (Mutallab regularly travels to the U.S. for health checkups.) But in response to that warning, Washington simply added Abdulmutallab's name to the more than half a million others on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) roster, the least rigorous of its four watch lists. It basically serves as a repository of suspicious characters; the placement of him on that list required no further action unless additional information linking Abdulmutallab to terrorism surfaced.

U.S. officials say they received no additional information on Abdulmutallab to warrant elevating him to the Terrorist Screening Database, the list of 400,000 individuals that is the government's primary tool for monitoring possible terrorists. That list has two smaller categories: a selectee list of about 14,000 people who are permitted to fly only after getting more intrusive screening, and a no-fly list of 4,000.

The near miss aboard the Northwest/Delta flight highlights the difficulty in setting screening in the right places to catch would-be terrorists. Britain's denial of entry to Abdulmutallab may in itself not have required the U.S. to be informed, British officials said. But even without that clue, Abdulmutallab's recent stay in Yemen, combined with his father's warning and the fact that he paid cash for a one-way ticket and didn't check any luggage, should have been sufficient to set off alarm bells. Or at least a more thorough search before he climbed into seat 19A aboard Flight 253.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the lists' logic needs to be reviewed, given Abdulmutallab's ability to slip through the cracks. She made the TV rounds Monday to back away from her Sunday claim to ABC News that the "system has worked really very, very smoothly." On Monday, she told CBS that the government is "going back and saying, How can an individual who has now been put on the TIDE list ... [have been] not elevated to have further screening or indeed be put on the no-fly list?"