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WikiLeaks Cables: Countries Put on TSA List After Attempted Christmas Day Bombing Were Angry

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

In the aftermath of the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) moved to increase airport security. Passengers flying “non-stop” to the US were subject to enhanced screenings, including in some cases a full-body pat-down. But, immediately, TSA realized that this placed an “extraordinary burden” on airports and airlines and TSA moved to develop a “regime” that would subject a “reduced pool” of passengers to “enhanced screenings.”

On January 13, 2010, it was announced a list of fourteen countries of interest. The list included: Cuba, Sudan, Syria, Iran (four countries on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism) and Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. The new regime meant all passengers traveling from any of the fourteen countries would, regardless of nationality or US citizenship, be subject to increased security and possible violations of privacy.

Newly published cables from WikiLeaks shed light on reactions from leaders of countries on the list. From January to February 2010, US diplomats had to explain and justify the designation. Some leaders from countries on the list took serious offense thus relations between the US and certain countries were in jeopardy. As one leader in Nigeria put it, the US had gone ahead and designated countries as terrorist countries and that was unacceptable.

“Poison” to US-Algeria Relations

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, in a meeting with Near Eastern Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Janet Sanderson, called Algeria’s designation “a blow to relations.” He said “Algeria’s security professionals were baffled by the move” and the designation “was at odds with President Obama’s Cairo speech calling for more solidarity between the West and the Muslim World.” Sanderson attempted to justify the decision and said the measure was in no way a reflection of US appreciation of cooperation between the US and Algeria. But, Medelci didn’t buy this explanation.

“Algeria had taken all necessary measures to ensure the security of its territory and should not have been put on this list, which was discriminatory,” he explained. Medelci called this move a “poison” in US-Algeria relations and said, while he understood Sanderson was here to assuage concerns, she was on a “mission impossible.” Algeria wanted to be off the list. “No more, no less.” Algeria also wanted to know why the announcement of this list had been made now. There had been “no special measures in place for years” so it was upsetting.

In a meeting with Algerian Counterterrorism Coordinator Kamel Rezag Bara, Bara told Sanderson the US could have “implemented the measure without publicizing it.” Bara refused to buy the idea that “enhanced airport screenings” were appropriate for all Algerians.

Such treatment would be understandable for state sponsors of terrorism; or countries in areas where U.S. troops were fighting like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; or for countries in turmoil like Yemen and Somalia; or perhaps for Saudi Arabia, which had been the source of 19 of 22  terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack; or even Lebanon,  because of Hizballah. But it was not understandable for Algeria or Libya. Libya was one of the first states to take action against Osama bin Ladin. (Note: In addition to sticking up for the only other Maghrebi state on TSA list,  Rezag Bara is a former Algerian ambassador to Libya.)  Algeria was a prime U.S. ally in fighting terrorism. How had this list been drawn up? he asked. Rezag Bara said it might have been acceptable to screen, for example, Algerians who had visited Yemen or Afghanistan, but not all Algerian nationals. He said he would not say more, but the government of Algeria really (he put emphasis on this last word) wanted the US to take Algeria off the list.

Lebanon: Enhanced Security Will Be “Economically Injurious”

Lebanon President Michel Sleiman and other Lebanese officials publicly and privately voiced their dismay at TSA’s designation. In a “scenesetter” for Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, then-charge d’affaires to Lebanon Michele Sison notes Presidency Director General Naji Abi Assi argued “the differentiation between state sponsors of terrorism and other countries of concern was not properly made and the resulting sense of humiliation and embarrassment would only benefit extremists.”

In a meeting with a congressional delegation led by Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) on January 8, President Sleiman raised the issue of the TSA listing protesting, “Lebanon’s safety record at Beirut’s Rafiq  Hariri International Airport was excellent.” He added the new security procedures would likely be “economically injurious.”

American Tourists Could “Attract Terrorists”

On January 21, Mahmoud Jibril, head of Libya’s National Economic Development Board (NEDB), met with US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz. He was “commended” for taking on the task of re-engaging Libya diplomatically after “decades of isolation.” Jibril informed Cretz that it was time to begin to implement projects that built trust between the two countries. He added, “Arabs of the sixties are no longer the Arabs of today,” meaning leaders in the region no longer will reject relations simply because of the US-Israel relationship. But, he pointed out the inclusion of Libya on the “countries of interest” list would not help matters, as it “reinforced negative perceptions about the US in Libya.

Additionally, a cable sent out on February 4, 2010, indicates the designation pushed the Libya government to return the favor and see how the US would like it if they were treated as a country that was a magnet for terrorism. In a meeting with Brigadier General Mohamed al Rammali of the Libyan Immigration and Passports Department, Cretz pushed for an end to a freeze on Libya visas to official US government-related travelers. Cretz also urged Libya to lift the ban on visas for US tourists. Rammali told Cretz the Libya government had concerns American tourists would “attract terrorists” and were at “higher risk of getting attacked by al Qaeda when they go out in the desert than Italian or French tourists.” Rammali continued after the announcement that Libyans would be subject to enhanced TSA screenings, “The timing is not right for us to start issuing tourist visas…you should be encouraging us to do so with positive measures, rather than adding us to lists where our citizens get screened.”

It’s worth noting Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa “summoned” the US ambassador to Libya to his office on October 26. He told the ambassador he was angry and disappointed at the treatment Libyan UN Permanent Representative Abdulrahman Shalgam and his wife experienced at the hands of John F. Kennedy Airport security officials when they recently departed from New York. What happened to them deeply angered Muammar Gaddafi and Koussa called on the Ambassador to investigate and respond with a report so the government could decide what “measures” to take in response:

What did Koussa tell the ambassador?

…Kusa said Shalgam and his wife were put in a room and subjected to “strip searches and rude behavior as if they were criminals.” The trauma had affected Shalgam’s wife so deeply that, according to Kusa, she is currently under hospital care.

Kusa called the incident unjustified and immoral: “Morally speaking, Shalgam is a guest in your country. If he had done something wrong or was a security threat, then that would have been a different story. How would you like it if your diplomats were treated by us in such a manner?” He argued that if a high level diplomat such as Shalgam — a former foreign minister — could experience such treatment by U.S. officials, then other Libyan diplomats or average Libyan travelers were probably facing even worse treatment.

So, the designation was not the first time Libya had expressed anger at TSA.

A Sign US Insensitive to Sensibilities of the Pakistani Public

The designation of Pakistan further irritated tensions between the US and Pakistan. According to a January 2010 cable,  it was yet another sign to officials like Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi that the US was “insensitive to the sensibilities of the Pakistani public.” Qureshi urged the USA to reconsider the new policy of enhanced security for Pakistanis.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke explained that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had asked him to inform Pakistan the changes were part of a review of previous TSA guidelines, Pakistan had not been singled out as other US allies like Saudi Arabia were on the list, random security checks would continue at airports like Heathrow and an ongoing review of countries on the list would be conducted with adjustments to the list made if necessary.

Qureshi apparently found Holbrooke’s answer good enough, as the meeting moved forward. But, it cannot be overstated: this is something that carried the potential to greatly impact relations, given the fact that there were already tensions over drones, US ground operations on Pakistani soil and a perception that the US did not care about Pakistan’s security concerns with India.

It Makes Us Feel and Look Like “Black Sheep”

Saudi leaders from the General Civil Aviation Authority (GACA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Information all thought Saudi Arabia was being “singled out.” Aviation Security Director of GACA, Abdulhameed Abalary, said he and senior Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah, were “surprised.” Abalary acknowledged the US had the “sovereign right” to establish these procedures for the protection of US citizens, however, he still took issue.

Abalary said the aviation security standards in Saudi Arabia were “very different” from other countries of interest, such as Afghanistan and Somalia. He emphasized that his country’s aviation security record was unblemished since 9/11 and that Saudi Arabia has one of the two highest aviation security standards in the region.  Abalary said both Saudi Arabia and the United States have made the protection of all air passengers their highest priority, and Saudi Arabia also places great value on facilitating legitimate travel between our countries, especially the 30,000 Saudi students studying in the United States, who will become the next generation of the Kingdom’s technocratic and business elite.

The designation was particularly unsettling to Abalary because the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the TSA had a “long history of cooperation on civil aviation security.” Abalary noted that he had a “constructive, wonderful” visit to TSA headquarters in December 2009 and was “excited” about a memorandum of understanding that had been developed with the TSA. He hoped the designation would be lifted and invited officials to tour Saudi airports to see how the country was secure and compliant, as GACA had implemented “full-body pat-downs of 100 percent of all passengers and physical examination of all accessible property.”

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister for Multilateral Relations Dr. Prince Torki bin Mohammed was disappointed and said the designation makes Saudi Arabia “feel and look like a ‘black sheep.’” The Prince took particular exception to US attempts to justify the listing of Saudi Arabia:

The Prince said he understood that America’s first priority is to save lives, but the U.S. approach should be to screen all passengers and not single out countries publicly. He agreed with A/DCM’s assertion that it was reasonable given finite resources to concentrate security screening on travelers linked to routes of travel (e.g., originating in Yemen), but he said the U.S. should have found a way to keep such routes and countries confidential. A/DCM emphasized that the list of countries was not intended to be made public and that leaks were regrettable. Beyond this, the list would evolve to reflect the nature of the threat. The Prince opined that the attempted bombing was a failure of U.S. intelligence and therefore the U.S. should focus on fixing its internal procedures, rather than “blaming Saudi Arabia” or adding new layers of passenger screening that terrorists will easily circumvent. The Prince reported that during a large dinner party the previous evening, he had been asked repeatedly (and “only”) about the new TSA regulations.  Torki noted that we have one of the “closest bilateral relationships of any two countries,” which included thousands of Saudi students in the United States. He hoped to avoid pressure for reciprocal measures, and closed by asking the A/DCM to urgently convey the SAG’s concerns to Washington.

In response to the designation, the Ministry of Culture and Information’s Eastern Province Directorate “delayed a meeting with Consulate Dhahran.” And, “military contacts” were extremely displeased. Some even suggested the new procedures could “negatively affect Saudi deliberations on the purchase of ships and systems in conjunction with the Eastern Fleet Modernization Program,” which was a program developed to “replace aging naval and aviation assets that the kingdom uses to patrol the Persian Gulf.”

US ambassador James B. Smith urged “prompt engagement to explain the US action and identify what specific concerns led to Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the list.”

Syria: “Wrong to Say Terrorists Come from Just These Countries”

For the most part, all Syrians from government officials to students to journalists to businesspeople were enraged by the designation. They believed the designation might “deter Syrians from traveling to the US,” according to a cable sent out on January 11, 2010. Syria had been listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1979 so Syrians had become used to the increased attention that comes with that, but Syrians communicated frustration with being on the new list because they believed Syria had a “good track record of Syrian travelers to the US.”

The Syrian Young Entrepreneurs’ Association (SYEA) had its sixth anniversary gala dinner in Damascus on January 14. While attendees informed Charge d’Affaires Charles Hunter they were excited about the possibility of US-Syria relations improving, the arrival of a new US ambassador to Damascus and an “eventual end of US sanctions,” they displayed opposition to new TSA requirements for travelers coming from Syria.

SYEA members called the measures “discriminatory” and a “form of humiliation.” They told stories of mistreatment at airports. One individual described how he was “consistently delayed at airports while in the United States after he presented his Syrian passport as identification.” Several indicated they would no longer be flying as a result of the measures.

A January 11, 2010 cable indicates Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad was particularly upset. He explained, “For our people this is an immoral policy from a religious viewpoint because it is wrong to say terrorists come from just these 14 countries.” He believed the requirements would “dissuade Syrians from traveling to the US” and he bluntly stated, “f you do this, no Syrian will go to the US and we will torture you at our airports if you come here.” (According to Hunter, in reaction to US airport screening procedures Miqdad blocked visas for Homeland Security Department personnel, who were traveling to interview Iraqi refugees. This was in reaction to how he was treated at Dulles Airport in September of 2009.)

Abdul Ghani Attar, a businessman who runs the Damascino Mall, questioned the designation noting how some Arab and Muslim countries had not been included. “

“Look at Jordan, they are not on the list even though they have terrorists. One of them just bombed a CIA base in Afghanistan,” he said. His father, Syrian Arab Red Crescent President Abdul Rahman Attar, argued Syria had established its anti-terrorist credentials and did not deserve to be on the new list. “We have been fighting terrorism for years,” Attar said, referring to the late President Hafez Asad’s campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s.

Manager of Syriatel, Muhammed Lahham, criticized the measures and said, “We (Muslims) must not be taken as terrorists only because one crazy man tried to blow up an airplane. The new measures are unfair and humiliating.” Davidoff sales representative Maher Sheikh Khaled questioned said, “Would the U.S. accept that we apply the same measures on Americans at our airports?  Of course they won’t.”

Finally, the designation was problematic for Syrian students who were hoping to study in the US:

Damascus University student Hussein Chalhoum reported many of his friends, especially young men, have cited the enhanced screening requirements as a reason to pursue study in France or Canada instead. “There is already a feeling that there is some discrimination against Arabs in the U.S. because of September 11, and so something like this makes it harder to get the courage to go there,” he said.  Omar Kahwaji, a masters student, criticized the measures as discriminatory. “If the measures were applied on everybody it would be kind of reasonable. But applying them on holders of (only) certain nationalities is not acceptable.”

“Whole Yemeni People are Penalized by Being Put on the Blacklist”

Deputy Foreign Minister Mohyadeen al-Dhabbi expressed concerns to a group of ambassadors on January 18. Upset about the designation of Yemen, he said, “Twenty-three million people, wherever they’re traveling, whatever they’re doing, they are wanted … The whole Yemeni people are penalized by being put on the blacklist.” Dhabbi recounted “successful efforts against al Qaeda” and how the Yemen government had killed and arrested many extremists. This was why he was furious with the “collective punishment” being “inflicted” on the people of Yemen by the new procedures.

“We don’t know who these (procedures) serve. We need the Yemeni people with us in the fight against terrorism,” Dhabbi stated. “The procedures create the impression that the international community regards all Yemeni travelers as potential extremists, leaving the Yemeni public mistrustful of counterterrorism efforts.”  US ambassador Stephen Seche tried to explain the procedures were not meant to “target the citizens of any nation” but to address “gaps in aviation security.” Dhabbi responded, “There is a better way.”

When the ambassador was met with the reaction, the designation had not been reported in the Yemeni press. Seche believed this new designation could become a “sticking point” in US-Yemen relations and suggested, “The planned visit of an ATA team to Sana’a International Airport to assist in upgrading the airport’s security procedures presents an opportunity to put a better face on USG efforts to improve aviation security in Yemen.”

The “Shoe Bomber” Was from Britain. Why Wasn’t the UK Put on a List After That Incident?

The country where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was born, Nigeria, did not like the designation either. Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe believed it would “mar the image of the nation during the lead-up to Nigeria’s 50-year anniversary.” He blamed what happened on the actions of a “stupid young man” and, according to a cable sent out on January 21, 2010, he asked Deputy Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute to reconsider the designation.

Despite that, authorities in charge of security were much more willing than other countries on the list to advance security cooperation. Lute discussed aviation security with Harold Demuren, Director General of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). Demuren, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was sad about the events. He told Lute all options were on the table and indicated a willingness to work with DHS to establish a US air marshals program in Nigeria. Demuren also gave Lute a “package of documents” with information on Abdulmutallab’s activities prior to the attempted bombing. (A package of material was also passed on to the FBI.)

Following the incident, former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Acting President Goodluck Jonathan on February 21. Jonathan raised the issue of the designation and talked about Abdulmutallab:

Jonathan joked that “Nigerians don’t want to die” and that suicide bombers like Abdulmutallab possessed “traits alien to the nation,” which were usually inculcated from abroad.  He observed that most extremists since September 11, 2001, have not come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and “had stayed in some of the best cities in the world, but received some bad influences while they were there.”  Former President Bush observed that it was never the leaders who were suicide bombers, but “some poor kid” whom the leaders had brainwashed into committing the attack…

… Acting President Jonathan decried the effect Nigeria’s inclusion on the TSA watch list would have on foreign investment, economic development, and job creation.  “No investor will want to be associated with a country without free movement,” he lamented. Jonathan said, although he recognized Bush as a former President, he remarked that he still retained influence as a former leader. The former President declared that “I don’t have anything to do with Government any longer” and, turning to the Ambassador, quipped that “It’s her job now.”  He added that “I’m sure that our diplomats will work through these issues.”  He explained that the best aspect of retirement was that he was not responsible for these difficult and sensitive issues anymore

Even more fascinating are the views Muslim scholars, government officials, politicians, professors, students and civil society representatives expressed.  During a visit by officials to the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto, residents explained Nigerian Muslims felt they were now being “harshly judged and discriminated against by the US, which has led people to become angry and suspicious.”

Muslim scholar Khalid said the Abdulmutallab incident is “strange” to Nigeria since suicide bombing is not part of Nigerian culture, which contributed to skepticism and conspiracy theories.  Khalid expressed skepticism over the ability of Abdulmutallab to  pass through the various security screenings if he had had the bomb  materials on him at the time. He asserted the possibility that  Abdulmutallab had undergone “hypnosis” after which someone had  planted the bomb on him. He even wondered whether the U.S. might have set up the incident as an excuse to invade Yemen. Echoing  arguments heard from other Nigerian interlocutors, Khalid questioned why the U.S. had not placed Great Britain on a security  watch list after the “shoe bomber” incident or after learning that  Abdulmutallab had received much of his higher education in London.

Sokoto State Secretary Athair Mohammed of the Opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP) claimed the inclusion would do “irreparable” damage to US-Nigeria relations. He added the “US should not place names of individuals on any watch list, as he feared that persons with similar names would suffer.”

A professor called the listing a “miscarriage of justice” and said 150 million Nigerians should not be held “accountable for one person’s actions.” The professor suggested the US extradite Abdulmutallab to Nigeria for “prosecution and sentencing.”

Several students doubted accounts of the incident involving Abdulmutallab. They thought the incident could have been a conspiracy. A director of a university center of peace studies offered to organize a discussion with students but told an official arranging the discussion “some people had become suspicious of his intentions and asked if he was CIA.” Professors refused to meet with the officials and added the Muslim scholars said people, who support development programs, are seen by some as US agents.

US Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders considered these “suspicions and skepticisms” to be the product of “paranoia and disinformation frequently promoted by extremist websites and other Islamist portals.” She blamed the reactions on “low literacy, underdevelopment and relative isolation.” And, she concluded that the people she talked to her were just the kind of people who needed to be watched because they could easily be manipulated by extremists.


For what it’s worth, here’s the cable Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent out to diplomats, which they were to use in meetings with officials that were angry over the listing. If one goes by the cables, it doesn’t look like they worked, but then do they need to? The US was probably able to get away with the designations because at the end of the day leaders would get over it because what would they do? Quit accepting military or economic aid? Abandon their role as partners in the global war on terror? No way.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."