WASHINGTON — U.S. border security officials learned of intelligence concerning the extremist links of the man who allegedly tried to bomb an airliner as he was en route to Detroit on Dec. 25, and had decided to question him when he landed, officials said in disclosures Wednesday.
The new information shows that border enforcement officials came close to uncovering the alleged plot involving the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, despite previous intelligence failures that were criticized by President Obama this week.
"The people in Detroit were prepared to look at him in secondary inspection," a senior law enforcement official said. "The decision had been made. The (database) had picked up the State Department concern about this guy — that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen."
If the intelligence had been detected sooner, it could have resulted in the interrogation and search of Abdulmutallab before he boarded the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, according to senior law enforcement officials, all of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
"They could have made the decision on whether to stop him from getting on the plane," the senior law enforcement official said.
Nonetheless, the revelations underscore the complexity of the intelligence and passenger screening systems that are the subject of comprehensive reviews that will be revealed today by the administration.
Even if U.S. border enforcement officials had learned of the Nigerian's alleged extremist links in time, it is not clear the intelligence was strong enough to cause Dutch police to search him or to block him from flying, officials said. But it could have led to intensified scrutiny that may have uncovered the plot.
The threshold for requiring a foreign visitor to undergo special scrutiny upon arrival in the United States is considerably lower than criteria for stopping a passenger's departure overseas, according to current and former law enforcement officials. That is why border security agencies rely heavily on terrorist watch lists of suspects seen as urgent threats, officials said.
Moreover, the window for identifying a passenger overseas as a potential threat is limited, according to a senior Homeland Security official.
U.S. border enforcement officials have access to passenger data based on lists of those who have made flight reservations. But the in-depth vetting only begins once a comprehensive list known as a flight manifest has been generated, just a few hours before takeoff, the Homeland Security official said.