Photo: 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."