Is the US Overreacting to the Underpants Bomber?
The fallout from the botched attempt by a Nigerian Muslim to blow up NW Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day is having multiple and perhaps far reaching ramifications.
In order to compensate for the security lapses that allowed the Nigerian terrorist to board a plane, new security protocols have been added, there is increased fear of domestic terrorism and more scrutiny of American Muslims. Finally Yemen has leapfrogged Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as the new front in the war against Al Qaeda. President Obama is already talking of “not sending troops to Yemen”, and thus publicly signaling that he and his advisors are contemplating the possibility and inviting the rest of America to chime in on the subject.
In my opinion two extraneous factors are compelling President Obama to overreact to the NW 253 incident. First there have been a serious of incidents that have refocused America’s attention away from the health care debate and the struggling economy back onto terrorism. The Fort Hood shooting, the suicide attack that killed eight CIA personnel in Afghanistan, and the near disaster on Christmas Day have had a cascading effect and generated demands on President Obama to prove that he is vigilant with regards to the threat of terrorism. Secondly, the Republicans, who have long profited from terrorism related fears, have moved in quickly and aggressively to portray President Obama as weak on security and soft on Muslims.
Clearly the President finds himself in a difficult predicament. He has to act to allay American fears, silence his Republican critics, but also take steps that do not undermine the progress he has made in improving the terms of US engagement with the Muslim World and US image in the rest of the World.
So far the three policy changes that have taken place: special scrutiny of passengers from Muslim countries overseas, special scrutiny of Muslims in the US and increased US involvement in Yemen’s are not all necessary or beneficial.
We already know the Abdulmutallib got on the plane because of the failure of existing security measures.
If the CIA, who was alerted by Abdulmutallib’s father a month in advance had done its job correctly, if the State department had spelled his name correctly, if the Israeli security firm ICTS, in charge of Amsterdam airport (they are supposed to be super experts at this) had done its job well, then the terrorist would not have been on the plane. The point is, the terrorist was on the plane because of the failure in implementation of current measures and not in spite of them. We don’t need more security measures; we need to execute the current ones correctly.
A Nigerian man tried to help the US by basically reporting on his own son. And now we have responded by profiling all Nigerians as potential terrorists until proven innocent! We have done the same to people of thirteen other countries, and I will not be surprised if in future they decide not to warn us of impending dangers.
The special scrutiny of American Muslims is puzzling and irritating. In all the cases of attempted terrorist attacks there has been no systematic linkage between the perpetrators and American Muslim institutions. Indeed the low level of radicalization of American Muslims in comparison to those in Europe and elsewhere is primarily due to the profound intolerance that American Muslim community and its institutions maintain for terrorism and extremism.
Even in cases of egregious violence, such as by Major Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood, it is now well established that the sources of his radicalization were foreign and not domestic. It was the Internet (perhaps we should arrest its inventor Al Gore) and not some sermon at an American Muslim mosque that turned him against his own country.
It’s high time that the US government stopped alienating its Muslim population and instead worked with it to combat threats at home and abroad.
US engagement with Yemen is a complex issue. Yemen’s geographic location, proximity to Iran, Somalia, and Gulf oil and its long harboring of Al Qaeda (remember USS Cole) demand close attention from the U.S. But Yemen is a very poor, mid size country, the only reasonably functioning democracy in the Arab World, with 40% unemployment and is already embroiled in a civil war.
It is clearly in the US interest to have a stable, democratic Yemen as a partner against the various sources of instability that proliferate in the region. But employing either the Iraq strategy or the Afpak strategy will not be fruitful.
Remember before we went to Iraq there was one Al Qaeda, and then we had two. Before we invaded Afghanistan we had one Taliban. Now we have two. There is indeed a serious problem in Yemen, let us approach it with prudence. I hope Republican critics don’t force President Obama in to doing something “Bush-like” that will only double the trouble there.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article appeared on Delaware Online on January 26, 2010: