Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to blow up Northwest Airlines' Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day when the device on his body apparently burst into flames without exploding. But the 23-year-old Nigerian succeeded in demonstrating, eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, that terrorists are still busy plotting to kill Americans and the nation needs to be just as thorough and imaginative in fortifying its defenses.
Abdulmutallab illuminated the challenges of trying to keep would-be terrorists from acquiring explosives and visas and boarding airplanes, especially in faraway foreign countries where the United States has little control over passenger screening. Abdulmutallab's father had tipped off the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in October about his son's radical religious views, getting Abdulmutallab's name added to a terror threat list. But a database of 550,000 names has no value if it doesn't trigger preventive action, such as when someone — as Abdulmutallab successfully did — tries to buy a pricey ticket with cash or board a long flight with no checked baggage.
Abdulmutallab also did something that seemed impossible just a few days ago — made it less pleasant to take a commercial flight. Even more hassle, loss of privacy and cost could be coming, as authorities decide whether Friday's incident should lead to the installation and use of full-body imaging machines or "sniffer" screening technology at all airports.
As Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano finally acknowledged Monday — a day after lamely suggesting otherwise and earning "Heckuva job, Janet" headlines — the nation's aviation security system failed in Abdulmutallab's case.
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The near-disaster also raises new questions about the growing al-Qaida presence in Yemen, where Abdulmutallab may have spent time recently, and supports the warnings that young Muslims around the world are at risk of radicalization. U.S. officials have been involved in recent military strikes on al-Qaida sites in Yemen, and the Obama administration will need to be attentive to that and other potential terrorist breeding grounds, including Somalia and Nigeria, even as it steps up troop levels in Afghanistan.
As administration officials and congressional panels scrutinize the lapse and try to adjust security procedures accordingly, Americans can be grateful that the detonation failed in Abdulmutallab's case — and that passengers and flight attendants were quick and courageous in subduing him and dousing the flames. Abdulmutallab's was the latest attempted terrorist attack — and the 28th since 2001, remarkably — but it won't be the last. The nation will need all the tools it can think of to protect itself, starting with vigilance.