13 January, 2010

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab-- New challenges call for new tactics against terrorism

by Jorge Reyes

On December 25, 2009, a rather shy young man boarded US Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound to Detroit from Amsterdam. This young man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had purchased his ticket days before in Ghana in cash. He had a choice window seat, 19A. Asides from his shy-seeming nature and quiet disposition, there was really nothing unusual about him, except, of course, that he was carrying explosives in his underwear and had intended to detonate it during the flight in mid-air, all for the glory of Islam.

If there wasn't anything unusual about this young man, security couldn't be more wrong. All of us, in fact, couldn't be more wrong

Months earlier his father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a very wealthy and well-connected banker in Nigeria, had already contacted the CIA concerned about his son's radical religious views. In fact, it seemed that throughout most of 2008-2009, Abdulmutallab had undergone a religious conversion of sorts, and he wasn't shy about it. As he himself wrote in a personal web-site, he had found his calling in radical Islam and was willing to die for it, if need be. That's what concerned his father. That's why he was willing to snitch out on his son with the CIA.

By the time Abdulmutallab boarded the plane bound for Detroit, the CIA office in Nigeria had already sent out a warning to the State Department through VISA VIPER. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCC), the agency that oversees terrorist suspects, in turn had also reviewed Abdulmutallab's file classifying him only with “reasonable suspicion.” In the NCC's screening process, in order for a complaint to be forwarded to the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), the agency that prevents suspected terrorists from boarding US-bound airplanes, the suspect must be directly linked to terrorism and terrorism activities, not just engage in violent ideologies. Abdulmutallab may have been a confused young man, but he didn't seem to be a threat nor a major player with Al Qaeda. TSC never flagged his name.

Shortly after the Northwest Airlines took off from Amsterdam, this shy young man went into the bathroom, where he stayed for about 20 minutes. When he walked out of the bathrrom, he came out covered in a blanket. Minutes later there was a commotion. A strange commotion, as if two people were having a physical altercation, and that's exactly what was happening. It seems that a passenger named Jasper Schuringa, a film director, saw something that resembled a fire coming from seat 19A. Realizing what was happening, a red flag went off in his head and he jumped on Abdulmutallah long enough to subdue him while flight attendants tried to extinguish what seemed like fire. Luckily for these passengers, another mass-murder like 9/11 was prevented. They had been on the brink of death. For Abdulmutallab, unlike his predecessors, he had been prevented from dying in a holy war. He had failed.

Upon landing, Abdulmutallab was detained by federal agents and taken to a federal prison in Detroit, Michigan. The next day on December 26, 2009, he was indicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan with six criminal counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder of 289 people on a U.S. Civil aircraft. If convicted he could spend the rest of his life in prison, all for a cause. His cause.

What is it that turns these youths into mass murderers? In the case of Abdulmutallab, asides from the years 2008-2009, nothing about his privileged past forebodes the type of radical activism he is charged with today. Is there anything in his past that can give us hints about his present? He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His past scholarly studies is enviable. He went to a very expensive high school. In 2004, he visited the US to attend the Global Youth and Leadership Conference in Washington DC and New York City. From 2005-2008, he studied mechanical engineering at University College London, where he lived in a $4 million dollar penthouse. Again, in 2008 he traveled to Houston, Texas, to take courses in theology and culture. But it was at this time that something happened, that something snapped for it was after his trip to Houston that he went on to travel to Dubai in the Middle East to complete some studies in an MBA program, and then to Yemen to study Arabic. From that moment to the day he boarded the Northwest Airlines on December 25, is still part of a big puzzle still being pieced together.

The discomfort we're feeling about this case is not just about the security lapse at the airport and the failure of intelligence reports (though both are a major issue), but the unfamiliar, yet very familiar, personal profile of Abdulmutallab. That's where the failure also lies, and where the danger is. He wasn't poor. He wasn't uneducated; quite the opposite, in fact. He wasn't unfamiliar with the US. Asides from his father's concerns before he joined Al Qaeda, there was nothing imminently dangerous about Abdulmutallab. His rebelliousness and lack of apparent calling in life, if that's what it was, didn't indicate that he would find his calling in a life by attempting to mass-murdering innocent people.

As logic goes, people who think like us (the west) are not expected to pose a danger of this magnitude. Abdulmutallab, though, is representative of that hybridization between the east and the west, kids raised between the cultures of Pepsi Cola and death, who are influenced by us, behave and think like us, yet in spite of that have no qualms embracing death. As he eerily told federal agents, “I'm the first of many.” And that fact alone is unsettling.

Sadly, even a cursory reading of history demonstrates that Abdulmutallab is not an isolated incident of normal and otherwise intelligent people doing atrocious things against humanity. Take for example, Osama Bin Laden himself, a structural engineering before becoming the self-appointed leader of a religious war. Years ago the affable-seeming Phnom Penh led his Khmer Rouge group on a killing spree across Cambodia. And one cannot forget the young Japanese kamikazes during World War II whose ultimate goal was to die for the emperor at whatever cost. There are others. Too many to recount.

The ideas these youths fight and die for are all bad but powerful nonetheless. In the hands of a leader or a cult group, half-cooked ideas become the weapon of death and they must not be taken as fringe eccentricities, but as a viable way of life for many people across the globe, irrespective of wealth or poverty, education or not. The dividing line is not as clear-cut, and heed must be taken. As Abdulmutallab will continue to remind us, he's not the only one lining up for martyrdom.


Anonymous said...

It's a myth to think that poverty causes terrorism. I'm willing to say that many terrorists don't even know how it feels to be poor.

Andy said...

Awesome piece and very informative. LOVE you writing! ANDY

LucillenCat said...

One thing this kid is is disaffected. Not many of us are born with a silver spoon in our mouths. The real interesting question is how our governments is going to tackle the fact that these punks come from well connected families, are rich and, yes, very educated. If they were poor maybe we can socially engineer their societies as we have done and provide them with greater opportunity for upward mobility such as when we do when we are engaged in nation-building. But when you already come from the higher strata of society, our tactics become trickier.

Interesting perspective.

Anonymous said...

If kids like this guy are in the majority in those countries then I fear WWIII. The problem is that this time around we got nuclear bombs to destroy each man, woman and child. The carnage won't be in battlefields anymore. It will be cosmic in nature.

I hope not. Our beautiful world does not belong to anyone of us. It sure as hell doesn't belong to any religion either or to any god, whether we call him Buddah, Yahweh, or Allah.

John Byrnes said...

We don’t need profiling to identify Individuals like the Christmas-Day Bomber!

Virtually all media outlets are discussing whether we should be profiling all Arab Muslims; I will in the one-page explain why we don’t need profiling. Over 15 years ago, we at the Center for Aggression Management developed an easily-applied, measurable and culturally-neutral body language and behavior indicators exhibited by people who intend to perpetrate a terrorist act. This unique methodology utilizes proven research from the fields of psychology, medicine and law enforcement which, when joined together, identify clear, easily-used physiologically-based characteristics of individuals who are about to engage in terrorist activities in time to prevent their Moment of Commitment.

The Problem
Since the foiled terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, the President has repeatedly stated that there has been a systemic failure as he reiterates his commitment to fill this gap in our security. This incident, like the Fort Hood shooting, exemplifies why our government must apply every valid preventative approach to identify a potential terrorist.

The myriad methods to identify a terrorist, whether “no-fly list,” “explosive and weapons detection,” mental illness based approaches, “profiling” or “deception detection” - all continue to fail us. Furthermore, the development of deception detection training at Boston Logan Airport demonstrated that the Israeli methods of interrogation will not work in the United States.

All media outlets are discussing the need for profiling of Muslim Arabs, but profiling does not work for the following three reasons:

1. In practice, ethnic profiling tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability for a terrorist; it does not tell us who the next terrorist is!

2. Ethnic profiling is contrary to the value our society places on diversity and freedom from discrimination based on racial, ethnic, religious, age and/or gender based criteria. If we use profiling it will diminish our position among the majority of affected citizens who support us as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

3. By narrowing our field of vision, profiling can lead to the consequence of letting terrorists go undetected, because the terrorist may not be part of any known “profile worthy” group – e.g., the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh

The Solution
Our unique methodology for screening passengers can easily discern (independently of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, and gender) the defining characteristics of human beings who are about to engage in terrorist acts.

The question is when will our government use true “hostile intent” through the “continuum of aggressive behavior” to identify potential terrorists? Only when observers focus specifically on “aggressive behavior” do the objective and culturally neutral signs of “aggression” clearly stand out, providing the opportunity to prevent these violent encounters. This method will not only make all citizens safer, but will also pass the inevitable test of legal defensibility given probable action by the ACLU.

As our Government analyzes what went wrong regarding Abdulmatallab’s entrance into the United States, you can be assured that Al Qaeda is also analyzing how their plans went wrong. Who do you think will figure it out first . . . ?

Visit our blog at http://blog.AggressionManagement.com where we discuss the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted terrorist act on Flight 253.

Anonymous said...

John, I agree with your posting. At issue is not that profiling works, but it is not a good measure of who is a terrorist, or a terrorist-in-the-making. Gorbachev said once during a visit to Miami that poverty was the greatest cause of terrorism abroard. He was wrong, and many who believe as he does are wrong... as we have sadly seen.

The youth (and those leaders who prey upon them) who do these hideous things are not poor, effectively challenging our views of who to "profile" and not to.

Anonymous said...

Profiling doesn't work. Terrorists come in all colors.