Counter terrorism – between watchlist and no-flight list

It was only recently, on 9 December during a hearing in front of the Internal Security Commission of the Senate, that the US administration was reassuring senators of the efficiency of the system of prevention of terrorist attacks, specifically concerning air transportation.

From the hearing emerged that enormous progresses have been made since the constitution of the Counter Terrorism Centre of (CST) in 2003 since information coming from different disparate resources (from intelligence, such as CIA and National Security Agency, to security, such as FBI, , the Homeland Security Department and the State Department) have all been collected in one single watch list.

The hearing analysed the different human and technological filters, which should impede terrorists’ entry in the US territory, Starting from consular offices which examine visa requests by consulting the database of the Department of State and of the Department of the internal security to track back previous journeys and more importantly, by interviewing candidates that want to travel to the United States.

Hence, the identification process of a potential terrorist takes place by deploying on the net thousands of civil servants at the national level, in the embassies, ports, public demonstrations and sensitive offices such as those granting gun licenses. This, according to the officials should allow to track back all the criminal precedents and any other intelligence information.

With the recent introduction of the preventive authorisation to go the US territory (the so called ESTA system) checks of dangerous individuals via the watch list take place few days before the journey. This should theoretically allow to track back any possible precedent and any other intelligence information.

At least on the basis of what the administration officers declare, the names taken from the blacklist should be increasingly more reliable, if it is true that out of the 150 calls received by police and borders agents of the centre a 30/40% is in the watch list. When this happens, the FBI agents as well border police officers and the 327 entry ports  in the US territory are warned.

However, according to the Director of the CST only 500 out of 78000 appeals coming from private entities worried to be in the watch list had connections with the latter.

The fact remains that there are more than 400,000 nominatives but of these  “Known or Suspected Terrorist” taken from the watch list only 3,400 are considered dangerous enough to justify a rejection to board and to communicate with the Transport Security Agency, which in turn refers it to the airline companies (“No Fly” list).

Facing this evidence, one can wonder whether the loops created in the case of the Nigerian man that attempted to blow up the Delta airline flight were created during the granting phase of the visa, the checks using the watch list, the security checks in Nigeria or Holland or during each of these phases.

Therefore what would be natural to suggest is to foresee more articulate and comprehensive criteria to transfer some of the 400,000 nominatives of the watch list to the 3,400 names of the no- flight list and to create intermediate filters to isolate cases such as the Nigerian man who did not have any criminal precedents but with a warning statement made by his own father.

To analyse 400,000 names is definitely not easy thing to do. However a way to look for a needle in a haystack is by reducing the volume of the thatch.

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