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Times Square Echoes in Dubai


19-05-2010

Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs


Tag: Dubai Foreign Policy Security UAE USA
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Again Dubai paid a penalty for providing the largest air hub in the Middle East supported by one of the worlds most successful airline operations Emirates.
On the evening of Saturday May 1st, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised US citizen of Pakistani origin, drove his recently acquired Nissan Panther into New Yorks media and entertainment heartland, Times Square, and parked.  On board were three large propane gas bottles and 100 kilograms of home-made fertilizer-based explosive.  He set in motion the devices intended to detonate this volatile mix with the clear objective of killing as many people as possible in one of Americas most iconic places.  Only luck and Shahzads lack of explosives expertise avoided the first successful terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11.
Relatively swiftly, it would appear, the NYPD and the FBI traced the vehicle to Shahzad and by Monday he was under observation, presumably while US Homeland Security experts attempted to identify whether he was acting alone or, as seems more likely, as part of a team.  Perhaps recognising that it would only be a matter of time before the investigation revealed his identity, Faisal Shahzad booked a flight on Emirates that same evening, bound for Islamabad via Dubai.  It would appear that the police lost contact with him during his drive to the JFK airport where he was then able to pay for his one-way ticket with cash even though his name had already been posted as an urgent new entry on a so-called no-fly list earlier in the day.
At around 10 oclock that evening, Faisal Shahzad successfully boarded Flight EK202, settled into his seat, presumably breathed a sigh of relief as the doors were closed and his Boeing 777-300 prepared to taxi.  At this point, Shahzads luck ran out.  A final check of the passenger manifest had linked his name to the no-fly list and the Emirates flight crew were requested to allow security officials to board  to take the would-be Times Square bomber into custody.
The recriminations over how close Faisal Shahzad had come to evading US justice started immediately and Emirates was quickly in the frame for allegedly using an out of date no-fly list.  But as Tim Clark, Emirates President subsequently pointed out, not only had his airline followed all security checking procedures scrupulously.  For international flights US officials update every 24 hours the no-fly list that airlines check, not instantaneously.  Further, Clark pointed out, an airline is not a security enforcement agency.  Many airlines have long grumbled about the security responsibilities that have been placed on their shoulders and that it seems ultimately unfair for the weakest links in the security chain to be blamed on airline officials.  Security should be state business, he said.  After US politicians had hyperventilated  for a few hours, US security officials acknowledged and noted that they have planned changes for some time and should inaugurate them in October. 
The incident had a potential to damage Emirates' reputation, but Emirates' prompt, direct responses spiked that. 
Media personnel was less constructive in their handling of the situation however.  Many, particularly in the US, headlined their reports with the news that Shahzad had been bound for Dubai.  Indeed he had, but only to sit in the transit lounge until his onward connection to Islamabad was ready to depart.
This kind of careless media reporting unfairly associates Dubai with a range of criminal activities and with terrorism.  It implies guilt by association and, somewhere at the core of each instance it suggests a degree of misunderstanding of the Arab world and a whiff of prejudice.  Big hub airports such as London, Atlanta, Frankfurt and Singapore, all face similar challenges of monitoring thousands of passengers every day but it is only Dubai that is specifically tagged as a terrorist hub or a centre of money laundering, even though the problems appear greater in both London and Frankfurt.
The course of events surrounding Faisal Shahzad suggests not only that there are still failings in the US homeland security measures but that unspoken prejudice leads too many to draw unfair conclusions about Dubai.

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