A young man checks in at the airport in Nigeria with a ticket to America bought with cash, and only carry-on luggage. More than a month before, his father, a wealthy banker, has visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, worried that his son has gone missing and may be hanging around with Yemeni-based extremists. The National Security Agency has picked up intelligence that Al Qaeda in Yemen is planning to use an unnamed Nigerian for a terror attack on the United States. The man has been denied a visa to enter Britain, but he has a valid multiple-entry visa for the United States.
In the movie version, lights would be flashing on computer screens in a darkened room in a nondescript building in the suburbs of northern Virginia, and intelligence officials would be on the phone asking urgent questions about the young man. In real life, nothing of the sort happened. There is, indeed, a plain, unmarked building outside of Washington where analysts of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) sift through intelligence, looking for threatening signs and patterns. Their operations room even looks like something out of the movies. It was designed with help from the Walt Disney Co., according to intelligence officials involved with the planning. But when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas morning with a bomb sewn into his underpants, the U.S. government did nothing to stop him. Possibly the worst terrorist strike against the U.S. since 9/11 was averted only by luck and the bravery of other passengers and the airplane’s crew.