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Amid security worry, analysts cite limits of terror watch lists

By Anthony Deutsch
Associated Press / January 9, 2010

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JAKARTA, Indonesia - A month before a Nigerian man whom American intelligence suspected of terrorist ties tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner, Indonesian authorities successfully used a US watch list to pick out an arriving passenger.

The arrest of Filipino Abdul Basir Latip, a suspected Al Qaeda-linked militant, is an example of effective counterterrorism intelligence-sharing at a time when the aviation community is examining security failures that allegedly enabled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane on Christmas Day with explosives-laden underwear.

President Obama has ordered new terror watch list guidelines after the attempted attack - though Abdulmutallab was in an intelligence database, he was not on a no-fly list - but analysts say such lists are only a small part of successful counterterrorism. Information-sharing and proper analysis of data are key.

“Lists are valuable in making sure governments around the world are able to track individuals,’’ said Dr. John Harrison, an aviation security specialist at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “But you don’t want to put too much emphasis on these lists. It’s an overstatement to say: ‘OK, now we are safe.’ ’’

While lists are a valuable intelligence tool, they cannot be solely relied upon to prevent terrorists from boarding flights, Harrison said. Even though Abdulmutallab, 23, was not on a watch list, his behavior should have triggered alarms that would have led to his capture anyway, he said.

Abdulmutallab’s ticket was apparently paid for in cash, and he was flying the same day and had no check-in luggage.

Together, those details should have tripped a standard international security procedure, Computer Assisted Passenger Screening or CAPS, Harrison said.

“This case seems more to have been failure, not of lists, but a failure on the human side of intelligence, accurately assessing the threat and tracking the information to see if there were any links,’’ he said. “It was an analytical failure.’’

US officials have said at least part of their failure to stop Abdulmutallab was because they had not put all the puzzle pieces together.

Alain Chouet, former chief of the security intelligence service at France’s counterintelligence agency, DGSE, estimates that roughly 600,000 names provided by national authorities are circulating on lists worldwide.

But he says the way those names are gathered is faulty. He estimated such lists are only 10 percent reliable.

“These are idiotic lists,’’ he said, adding some people are blacklisted based on anonymous accusations. “We don’t know how these lists are made.’’

In the Philippines, most of the approximately 100 people on a watch list have been charged with or sought by authorities in connection with previous violent crimes.

In Indonesia, the names include hundreds of convicts, known associates of terrorists, and individuals identified by intelligence agencies as suspicious.

In Latip’s case, there was no information that the Filipino was planning an immediate attack, but he was a high-value target wanted for alleged involvement in the 1993 kidnapping of a Christian missionary by Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants who had eluded capture for years, according to Ric Diaz, a senior Philippine counterterrorism official.

The Indonesians were acting on a tip from Interpol, which was sharing information from a US watch list, when they nabbed him on Nov. 21 at Soekarno-Hatta international airport with the help of photographs provided by the FBI. He arrived from Syria using a fake passport.

This coordination is key to successful security, analysts said, more than the watch lists themselves.