Monday, December 28

Did terrorist Abdulmutallab get past airport security by pretending to be a Sudanese refugee? And planning for the attack was done in Pakistan

See my December 30 post, How many Dutch military police does it take to change a light bulb? The vexing case of terrorist Umar Abdulmutallab and attorney Kurt Haskell for additional news on Kurt Haskell.
There's yet more news re Haskell's claims. One part of his eyewitness account has been verified, and that could mean there was a second terrorist on board NWA Flight 253. I'll be posting on that part of the story this evening.
UPDATE Jan 2, 5:00 AM ET
I haven't had time yet to finish work on the next post about the Haskell matter but here's the link to a Detroit News report, dated Jan 1, on latest developments, which fills in some of the blanks.
More on Kurt Haskell's account, and Pundita's theory about what really happened at Schiphol airport prior to takeoff of NWA Flight 253 on December 25.
The source for this report is a website called MLive "METRO DETROIT LOCAL NEWS & TALK: The Latest Community, Education, Crime & Government News" (H/T "Freedom Fairy").

Kurt Haskell's strange tale

A commenter at the MLive site with the screen name "Pug," who was on NWA Flight 235 with his wife, first posted his eyewitness account at the site sometime before 6:49 AM on December 26. He was interviewed later in the day by MLive reporter Sheena Harrison, who published the interview at 2:22 PM at MLive.

Pug turned out to be Michigan, USA resident Kurt Haskell. He and his wife Lori are attorneys with the Haskell Law Firm in Taylor, Michigan. "Their expertise includes bankruptcy, family law and estate planning," according to the Haskell law firm's website.

(See the MLive website for links.) From the MLive report:
A Michigan man who was aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 says he witnessed Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab [now known by the last name "Abdulmutallab"] trying to board the plane in Amsterdam without a passport.

Kurt Haskell of Newport, Mich., who posted an earlier comment about his experience, talked exclusively with and confirmed he was on the flight by sending a picture of his boarding pass. He and his wife, Lori, were returning from a safari in Uganda when they boarded the NWA flight on Friday.

Haskell said he and his wife were sitting on the ground near their boarding gate in Amsterdam, which is when they saw Mutallab approach the gate with an unidentified man.


While Mutallab was poorly dressed, his friend was dressed in an expensive suit, Haskell said. He says the suited man asked ticket agents whether Mutallab could board without a passport. “The guy said, 'He's from Sudan and we do this all the time.'”

Mutallab is Nigerian. Haskell believes the man may have been trying to garner sympathy for Mutallab's lack of documents by portraying him as a Sudanese refugee.

The ticket agent referred Mutallab and his companion to her manager down the hall, and Haskell didn't see Mutallab again until after he allegedly tried to detonate an explosive on the plane.


As Mutallab was being led out of the plane in handcuffs, Haskell said he realized that was the same man he saw trying to board the plane in Amsterdam.

Passengers had to wait about 20 minutes before they were allowed to exit the plane. Haskell said he and other passengers waited about six hours to be interviewed by the FBI.

About an hour after landing, Haskell said he saw another man being taken into custody. But a spokeswoman from the FBI in Detroit said Mutallab was the only person taken into custody.

Haskell's account is very interesting in one respect so I'm going to take some time with it.

There are a few slight discrepancies between the wording and facts presented in the MLive report and the original account posted by Kurt Haskell as Pug, although this doesn't necessarily negate his account. For example, in the Pug account, Haskell doesn't refer to the man who accompanied Abdulmutallab as a "friend" and of course Haskell had no way of knowing the relationship between the men -- even though he leaps to the conclusion that the man is a "terrorist." That is also presuming too much. If Haskell's account of what he observed is correct, the other man could have been a legitimate representative of a refugee aid organization or even an embassy, and who was duped by false papers that Abdulmutallab showed him.

And Haskell could easily have drawn the wrong conclusion about the other man's nationality unless he has a very good ear for accented English. Describing someone as an Indian on the basis of his looks is much like describing someone as a European. The man could have been from anywhere on the Indian subcontinent or even Iran or other parts of the Middle East.

Haskell's tale of a second bomber

Another question mark about Haskell's account, in the Pug version, is that he provides considerable detail about what he claims was a second terrorist taken into custody. And yet, from the MLive report, the FBI office in Detroit flatly contradicted the claim, which in Pug's version is strange indeed:
FBI also arrested a different Indian man while we were held in customs after a bomb sniffing dog detected a bomb in his carry on bag and he was searched after we landed. This was later confirmed while we were in customs when an FBI agent said to us "You are being moved to another area because this area is not safe. Read between the lines. Some of you saw what just happened." (The arrest of the other Indian man). I am not sure why this hasn't made it into any news story, but I stood about 15-20 feet away from the other Indian man when he was cuffed and arrested after his search.
Now here Haskell was outright lying, or the second man was quickly let go and it was all a mistake and no Milk Bones for the bomb-sniffing doggie, or the FBI representative in Detroit was lying or misinformed.

But if we set aside all these caveats I think Haskell would have to be a pretty sophisticated hoaxer to have thought up a tall tale that happens to answer a key question about the terror attack, and which only intelligence/ security professionals knew enough about to be asking in the wee hours of the 26th, when he first posted his story at MLive.

The question: How did the terrorist's trip to Yemen escape notice by Amsterdam airport authorities?

John Batchelor and B. Raman on the case

A Yemen stamp on a passport going through an international airport is a huge red flag and would call for extra scrutiny of a passenger, including a thorough pat down. Yet somehow Abdulmutallab got around the extra scrutiny. The question of how he managed the feat was the subject of much discussion between news talk radio host John Batchelor and ace intelligence analyst B. Raman during John's show on Sunday.

Ram also brought up the question in his latest post at his blog about the terror incident:
[...] 8. An intriguing question is whether his passport contained the immigration stamp of Yemen, which might have raised eyebrows at Schiphol [airport in Amsterdam]. If not, did he travel from Yemen to Ethiopia by a different passport to conceal the fact that his travel started from Yemen?
Ram mentioned other possibilities during his talk with John; e.g., an al Qaeda accomplice at Yemen customs simply didn't stamp the passport. But Kurt Haskell's account of what he witnessed at the Schipol airport check-in counter offers one solution to the mystery: Abdulmutallab posed as a Sudanese refugee without a passport and was walked through!

No passport, no worries about a Yemen stamp. Neat. And if Kurt's account pans out, it seems the man accompanying AM was aware that Schipol had made other concessions for Sudanese refugees.

AM passing himself off as a refugee would also explain for airport authorities the cash payment for the ticket and no return ticket: two other red flags. It would also solve the problem of another red flag: a Nigerian stamp on his passport. Indeed, the Sudanese refugee ploy might have avoided all the red flags.

The Pakistan Connection

Below I've republished Kurt's account in the original "Pug" version, which to my mind is clearer in some respects than the MLive report. But first, a few more words about John's discussion with Ram last night:

Their periodic conversations on John's show about terrorism-related issues are always important, but Sunday's stands out for me; it underscored that all the seemingly different highways and byways of international terrorist incidents converge in Pakistan. This would include AM's terrorist attack on the passengers of NWA Flight 235; this is very clear from Ram's discussion with John during the Sunday show.

From all I've learned since 9/11, I'd say there's no question in the mind of any intelligence professional who's specialized in al Qaeda-type attacks that the al Qaeda masterminds are in Pakistan. And I think few in the intelligence community would dispute that at least some elements of Pakistan's military/ISI:

  • have been directly involved in planning major terrorist attacks,

  • have had knowledge of planned attacks that they didn't share in timely manner with other governments,

  • and that they work closely with al Qaeda as well as elements of the Taliban who are attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan.

  • So it's past time for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under Janet Napolitano to grow up and for the FBI, CIA, Pentagon, Obama Administration, and the U.S. Congress to stop playing ostrich about Pakistan.

    This morning ABC News reported:
    Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, told FBI agents there were more just like him in Yemen who would strike soon.

    And in a tape released four days before the attempted destruction of the Detroit-bound Northwest plane, the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen boasted of what was planned for Americans, saying, "We are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of God."

    Yemen has become a principal al Qaeda training ground and the accused suicide bomber told the FBI he was trained for more than a month in Yemen, given 80 grams of a high explosive cleverly sewn into his underpants, undetected by standard security screening.[...]
    And yet John Batchelor's recent discussions with B. Raman and other experts on terrorism underscore that Yemen is just the training camp; the terrorist operations are run from Pakistan. So I'm strongly recommending that you listen to the Sunday discussion between John and Ram, which packs a great deal of information into the ten-minute segment. (It's the first interview in the 12 -1 AM hour of the show).

    The podcast for the Sunday show is not yet posted at the 77 WABC-AM website but here's the link to the show archives; the podcast should be available later today or tomorrow at latest.

    For readers outside the USA who're picky about clicking on links: 77 WABC-AM, which carries John's show and broadcasts from New York City, is one of the biggest radio stations in the USA if not the biggest. Its website is secure, so the link to the archives is perfectly respectable. (The same for the link to B. Raman's blog, which is posted at Google Blogger.) And you can choose to simply 'listen' to segments of John's four-hour nightly show or download them.

    The Milk Bone Brigade

    Before I turn the floor over to Pug, one point about his description of the incident involving what he claimed was a second terrorist. I've been seeing reports that only a full body scan could have caught the explosives AM had taped to his body, and that those scanners cost $250,000 each. This news has been accompanied by hand-wringing on the part of officials about the expense of installing the hi-tech scanners. But Kurt's mention of a bomb-sniffing dog is a reminder that there's a low tech full-body scanner on four paws that doesn't cost much in room, board, and flea powder. So maybe as a stopgap solution airports should make greater use of bomb-sniffing dogs.

    All right; here's Pug:
    Commenter says he was aboard NWA Flight 253, saw suspected terrorist board the plane
    By Sheena Harrison
    December 26, 2009, 6:49 AM

    Update: talked exclusively with Pug (a.k.a. Kurt Haskell), who confirmed he was aboard Flight 253. commenter, Pug, says he was aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and saw suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab board the plane in Amsterdam.

    It's unknown whether this story is true -- you're welcome to decide for yourself. But if Pug's story checks out, then it's certainly understandable he had trouble sleeping last night after returning home from the ordeal.

    "I was on this flight today and am thankful to be alive. My wife and I were returning from an African safari [in Uganda -- see the interview] and had this connecting flight through Amsterdam. I sat in row 27, which was 7 rows behind the terrorist. I got to see the whole thing take place and it was very scary. Thanks to a few quick acting people I am still alive today.

    For those of you talking about airline security in this thread, I was next to the terrorist when he checked in at the Amsterdam airport early on Christmas. My wife and I were playing cards directly in front of the check in counter. This is what I saw (and I relayed this to the FBI when we were held in customs):

    An Indian man in a nicely dressed suit around age 50 approached the check in counter with the terrorist and said "This man needs to get on this flight and he has no passport."

    The two of them were an odd pair as the terrorist is a short, black man that looked like he was very poor and looks around age 17 (Although I think he is 23 he doesn't look it). It did not cross my mind that they were terrorists, only that the two looked weird together. The ticket taker said "you can't board without a passport".
    The Indian man then replied, "He is from Sudan, we do this all the time".

    I can only take from this to mean that it is difficult to get passports from Sudan and this was some sort of sympathy ploy. The ticket taker then said "You will have to talk to my manager", and sent the two down a hallway.

    I never saw the Indian man again as he wasn't on the flight. It was also weird that the terrorist never said a word in this exchange. Anyway, somehow, the terrorist still made it onto the plane. I am not sure if it was a bribe or just sympathy from the security manager.

    FBI also arrested a different Indian man while we were held in customs after a bomb sniffing dog detected a bomb in his carry on bag and he was searched after we landed. This was later confirmed while we were in customs when an FBI agent said to us "You are being moved to another area because this area is not safe. Read between the lines. Some of you saw what just happened." (The arrest of the other Indian man). I am not sure why this hasn't made it into any news story, but I stood about 15-20 feet away from the other Indian man when he was cuffed and arrested after his search.

    What also didn't make the news is that we were held on the plane for 20 minutes AFTER IT LANDED!. A bomb could have gone off then. This wasn't too smart of security to not let us off the plane immediately.
    See the MLive report on Haskell for a chilling detail he provided about the fire on Flight 235: other accounts portray it as a small fire that was quickly put out; from Kurt's account the fire spread very quickly before it was extinguished.


    Anonymous said...

    I am intrigued too by Haskells account. It could be of course he is just mistaken and the "refugee" he saw never boarded the flight. But let us say it was the Nigerian. A number of posters on other sites have rubbished Haskells account on the grounds that Abdulmutallab could not get airside without a passport.

    It is true, to get through to airside at a European airport you have to show your passport and your ticket. But this is just to get airside not to board a flight.

    Then once your are airside you hang around in the duty free area until your flight is called. Often the boarding gate is announced but not opened and people collect there waiting for it to open.

    When the boarding gate does open your papers (passport and ticket) are checked again. Is this how it works in Nigeria or did he only need to show his papers once - when he went airside?

    Then he flew to Amsterdam where he went into the transit area. I am not sure how the transit section works at Schipol. Do you need to show your papers again or are you passed direct to the boarding gate for the next stage?

    To avoid arousing suspicion here, he may have then claimed to be a Sudanese refugee, with a witting or unwitting accomplice in an airport official.

    Equally interesting to me is how he got through the Schipol scanning machines. How much scanning is done of transit passengers? Could it have been a plastic syringe? After all it might not have needed to be that sharp, just sharp enough to piece the plastic container he was wearing? In which case plastic might be good enough.

    Pundita said...

    Re how he got the syringe past the scanner -- good question.

    Re the Haskell account: According to the U.K. Guardian (Dec 28 11:23 GMT) report titled, "US says aviation security system failed in Flight 253 case," a Dutch military police spokesman said that they are investigating Haskell's account of an accomplice at the check-in counter:

    'At this moment we have no information on whether there was another guy. We are checking all clues and information we get.' The spokesman added that the military police and the Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb were reviewing CCTV recordings to check out the accomplice story."

    They could also interview the clerk at the check-in counter about whether she remembers a man trying to get an alleged Sudanese refugee on board w/o a passport.

    And there's the general question of how refugees w/o passports are handled by NGOs and embassies if they're trying to get them onto international flights. The terrorist had a passport but if it showed he was in Yemen and Nigeria, it makes sense he wouldn't have wanted to show the passport. Although one wonders why AQ in Yemen didn't supply him with a 'clean' counterfeit one if his own passport raised red flags.

    Also, tonight's edition of Fox News at 6:00 PM ET (cable) reported on Haskell's claims. That's not saying much, but it suggests that Fox also checked out Haskell and found him a reasonably credible witness -- at least enough to air his claim on their show.

    Ditto for the Guardian, which mentions in their report that Reuters had picked up Haskell's story.

    Arvind said...

    It's only a matter of time before Pak link surfaces but I don't expect any "major link" in military or intel services, serving or retired, if at all there is one to turn up.

    BTW KSM was a Pak. And so was Omar Sheikh. So a Pak mastermind wouldn't be surprising. More reasons for Pak to get money from US while being an ally on GWOT.

    Anonymous said...

    >> FBI also arrested a different Indian man while we were held in customs after a bomb sniffing dog detected a bomb in his carry on bag and he was searched after we landed. This was later confirmed while we were in customs when an FBI agent said to us ...
    > Now here Haskell was outright lying, or the second man was quickly let go and it was all a mistake and no Milk Bones for the bomb-sniffing doggie, or the FBI representative in Detroit was lying or misinformed.
    Smith confirmed for yesterday that a second person had been taken into custody, but today tells the News the person was a passenger on a different flight.

    "There was a second person taken into custody, but it had nothing to do with Flight 253," he said. "They did see dogs, but again, it was a totally different incident."