The U.S. government has prevented more than 350 people suspected of ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from boarding U.S.-bound commercial flights since the end of 2009, the Associated Press has learned.
The tighter security rules - imposed after the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day 2009 - reveal that for more than seven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, hundreds of foreigners with known or suspected terror ties were allowed on U.S. planes.
Until then, even as commercial passengers were forced to remove their shoes, limit the amount of shampoo in their carry-on luggage and endure pat downs, these foreigners typically told Customs officers that they were flying to the U.S. for legitimate reasons such as vacations or business.
Security practices changed after an admitted al Qaeda operative from Nigeria was accused of trying to blow himself up on a flight to Detroit on Christmas 2009. Until then, airlines kept passengers off U.S.-bound planes only if they were on the no-fly list, a list of people considered a threat to aviation.
Now before an international flight leaves for the U.S., the government checks passengers against a larger watch list that includes al Qaeda financiers and those who attended training camps but haven't previously beencategorized as threats to planes. The government was checking this list before but only after the flight was en route to the U.S.
If someone on the flight was on the watch list, the person would be questioned after the plane landed and likely refused entry into the country.
"As terrorists keep adapting and changing their approach, so must we," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, told the AP. During a Senate hearing shortly after the attempted Christmas attack, Mr. Rockefeller raised concerns about divisions among the different watch lists.
Hundreds of people linked to al Qaeda, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups have been kept off airplanes under the new rules. They include what U.S. officials described as a member of a terrorist organization who received weapons training, recruited others, fought against American troops and had a ticket to fly to the U.S.
The law enforcement official and other U.S. officials insisted on anonymity before discussing sensitive security issues. They would not provide the names of the people suspected of terror ties or some key details about the cases for security reasons.
"We've gotten better with our techniques and applying them predeparture, ensuring we're looking at as broad a section of potential risk as possible," said Kevin McAleenan, deputy assistant commissioner of field operations at Customs and Border Protection.
CBP said the gap in U.S. security practices wasn't obvious until after the attempted Christmas attack. Officials were prepared to question the accused bomber when he landed in Detroit - but that turned out to be too late.
"We had the skill set, the systems and the techniques, and we needed to move backwards in time," Mr. McAleenan said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the terror watch list and its derivative, the no-fly list, became two of the government's best-known counterterrorism tools. They also became some of the most criticized, as innocent travelers were inconvenienced when they were mistaken for terrorism suspects.
Outrage forced the government to pare the lists, which airlines check before allowing people to fly.