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It takes effort to miss the trend here

Like bin Laden, Abdulmutallab wanted to create chaos.


 

It takes effort to miss the trend here“Consider this hypothetical,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic three years ago. “It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm . . . If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close.”

Yeah, not so much. In December 2009, a young Nigerian Muslim saw the new face of America, Barack Hussein Obama, on his television and kept sewing high explosive into his underwear. On Christmas Day, the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, wore his stuffed shorts onto Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam, tried to detonate them over Detroit, and the rest is hysteria.

So it turns out that the mere sight of a black President with Muslims among his ancestors won’t stop a terrorist cold in his tracks. There was something almost sweet about the idea: maybe murderous hatred of the United States could be tipped back into something more benign, simply by showing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney the door. It would be excellent if it were true, but it isn’t. And that wasn’t the only myth that blew up when Abdulmutallab’s pants did.


A lot of people seem able to muster a lot of easy certainty about terrorism, what causes it, how to stop it. Which is odd, when you consider that the whole business of blowing things up is the work of madmen intent on spreading chaos. As Louis Menand pointed out on the first anniversary of 9/11, one of that day’s many surprises was the number of observers who could watch suicide squads fly airliners into skyscrapers and announce, without missing a beat, “it just confirms what I’ve been saying all along.”

The rest of us have no such knack. I was amazed to read, after Abdulmutallab flubbed his try, that some people took his prosperous background as a rebuttal of the idea that there’s a link between poverty and terrorism. Really? Sure, his father is one of the richest men in Nigeria. He studied at good schools in London and Dubai. Like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was far more fortunate than most of his intended victims, let alone his neighbours.

And yet. Like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Abdulmutallab found it handy to use a grindingly poor country as his base while he plotted. About the best that can be said for Yemen, as a tourist destination, is that it’s not quite as rundown as Afghanistan. But it takes real effort to miss the trend here. Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are countries with large Muslim populations. But they’re hardly the only ones. The other thing they have in common is that they’re also wrecked, anarchic, dirt-poor countries where millions of people have no hope. Terrorism doesn’t just need terrorists, it needs a following. Even in democracies, it’s hardly uncommon to find leaders who live better lives than the people they want to appeal to.

So the bad news about Abdulmutallab is that he was prepared to do his work even though a Democrat was President. The worse news is that Yemen, where he gathered the tools of his trade, is a wreck, like a lot of other countries in the Muslim world. But there’s good news here, too. Here’s the best: it is hard to see Abdulmutallab as evidence of a terrorist movement that’s gathering strength or competence.

Al-Qaeda used to work in large groups with meticulous planning. The 9/11 plotters, the 7/7 bombers in London, the Atocha Station train saboteurs in Madrid, struck in many places at once. Their murders took months to plan and needed extraordinary discipline. Abdulmutallab was just a guy with hot pants. He tried to detonate them when the plane he was riding was nearly empty of fuel and seriously compromised as a weapon. He claimed to be the first of many but so far he’s all alone. He’s a loser.

Or he would be if we could only see him as one. Instead, governments around the world have rushed to add another 16 layers of security hassle to already chronically choked airport lineups. Even though air travel is already far, far safer than it was 30 years ago. Even though 3,000 people die on Canadian highways each year, so if we scare or harass people away from air travel we put them in greater danger by making them drive.

The goal of asymmetrical warfare is to use trivial tools—a box cutter, a motorboat loaded with explosives, a pair of trick underpants—to goad the enemy into massive, bankrupting, demoralizing overreaction. It would be really good to have a government somewhere that would remind us of this instead of leading the panic parade. The Harper government isn’t temperamentally suited to calling for calm. Barack Obama might have been likelier to show some stoicism. Unfortunately, his face and name having failed to disarm the terrorists, he is now under pressure to prove he’s tough. Dick Cheney, who was vice-president during the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, feels qualified to heckle Obama from the sidelines. So instead of calming the panic, Obama joins in. And for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, it’s mission accomplished.


 

It takes effort to miss the trend here

  1. 2 items

    1) I am also concerned about unsustainable, high cost reactions to terrorism. This is a long term elephant against the door kind of thing, unless we can be lucky enough to draw them into a traditional fight, which we can win in the Western Way….massed firepower and superior technology.

    2) Best book I ever read on Asymmetrical warfare is this one
    http://tinyurl.com/yfh8436

    Well worth going through. Col Hammes is one of the best thinkers on this problem.

    • Ok, let`s say, let`s bomb the entire Middle East, along with all Asia, Africa and Latin America, with "massed firepower and superior technology".
      It`s funny to know that for some folks talk about human lives, war, mass destruction, is pretty much talk about hammer, logs, driver and snails.
      In this case of Mr Abdulmutallab, what should USA do? Bomb Yemen? Bomb Nigeria? Bomb both of them? Bomb all around their country?
      Oh, "massed firepower and superior technology", right? I just read yesterday that London is the main Al Qaeda center of recruitment. London! United Kingdom! Mr Abdulmutallab has studied there! Let`s bomb London, with "massed firepower and superior technology". Let`s put mariners on all those red buses and shoot all mosques over there. Why bother ask permission to the Queen, right? Oh, they have a prime minister. Oh, they are against terrorims. Well, who cares about local barbarian supertitions anyway… they have terrorists over there and we have "massed firepower and superior technology".
      Some people are just pathetic, if not funny at all.

      • Ok, you seem to have missed the point and you have flown off into another world.

        Without going into a massive history lesson and rewriting Hammes and Keegans books. "The West's" enduring advantages have been leveraging technology and massing firepower. Which is why they have won "traditional" battlles. Uniformed armies fighting in an organized fashion. Al Queda does not fight that way….this is what I meant by if we were "lucky enough", its a battle our military and our society is geared to fighting. The battles the "the Western Powers" have lost are those that are asymmetrical. Although the "the Western Powers" have won the odd asymetrical fight, when the follow the prescriptions laid out in Hammes book.

        What our society and traditionally our military have not been good at is fighting long running low level conflicts, like the one we are fighting. Running around chasing flies with howitzers is both expensive and unsustainable. You might try reading AND understanding the link I included before making overwrought assertions.

  2. "as a rebuttal of the idea that there's a link between poverty and terrorism."

    I am one who believes poverty is not the main explanation for what's happening because there are poor Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus …. who aren't blowing themselves up. I think a better connection is how authoritarian your country is, but that is not entirely satisfactory either, because homegrown terrorists in West are becoming an increasing problem.

    "Or he would be if we could only see him as one."

    But Abdulmutallab was not just one – he is one of many. When do people start noticing a pattern? And I wonder when American msm will start to talk about how US domestic terrorism has increased substantially since Obama took over. Sullivan might have had it backwards – seeing Barack Hussein Obama on their tv screen has only increased terrorists attacks, so far.

    – "A Muslim convert who said he was against the U.S. military pleaded not guilty Tuesday to capital murder in connection with the shooting of two soldiers outside an Arkansas recruiting center." June 2 '09 USA Today

    – "A Defence Department review of the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, has found the doctors overseeing Maj. Nidal Hasan's medical training repeatedly voiced concerns over his strident views on Islam and his inappropriate behaviour, yet continued to give him positive performance evaluations that kept him moving through the ranks." Canadian Press, Jan 11 '10

    Though I do agree that authorities are fantastic at leading panic parades and when we overreact that is only helping terrorists win.

    • because homegrown terrorists in West are becoming an increasing problem.

      No they aren't. All that's increasing is your perceptual sensitivity to them.

      • I think the real debate here is whether they are really home grown or just imported. But unrest assured, we've got some crazies among us.

    • I'm just forming this idea that its a combination of a few things, mostly these three things. If I could draw a triangle: "An ideology of resentment", "Wealth to fund it", "Anarchy to make it grow".

      You see, Buddhism doesn't have the Ideology of resentment, so poor Buddhist countries won't grow it. Haiti doesn't have the wealth to fund it. Timothy McVeigh had the three.

      Where the government – whatever form – North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia itself, is fixed and firm, it doesn't seem to grow. You see, China and Saudi Arabia also have some kind of wealth distribution system. Cuba and North Korea seem unable to muster the wealth – for whatever reason, to grow it.

      Just an idea.

      • It would make a good research paper and could provide incredible insight if your idea was pursued further.

      • "An ideology of resentment", "Wealth to fund it", "Anarchy to make it grow".

        I think you are on the right track with this because it's not just one factor that is leading to muslims wanting to blow up West. Suicide bombing seems to be mix of religion, poverty, authoritarian government and nationalism.

        I was just looking at wiki and there were a few interesting ideas in there:

        – "224 of 300 suicide terror attacks from 1980 to 2003 compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism involved Islamist groups or terrorist acts in Muslim-majority lands"

        – "From 1980 to early 2004, 95% of suicide attacks had the central objective of compelling a democratic state with military forces on territory that the terrorists prize to take those forces out."

        – "Recent research on the rationale of suicide bombing as an effective technique to kill enemies has highlighted the importance of religion as a driving force."

        From a Pentagon report on suicide bombers:

        "His actions provide a win-win scenario for himself, his family, his faith and his God," The document explains. "The bomber secures salvation and the pleasures of Paradise. He earns a degree of financial security and a place for his family in Paradise. He defends his faith and takes his place in a long line of martyrs to be memorialized as a valorous fighter. And finally, because of the manner of his death, he is assured that he will find favor with Allah," the briefing adds. "Against these considerations, the selfless sacrifice by the individual Muslim to destroy Islam's enemies becomes a suitable, feasible and acceptable course of action."

    • Hasan wasn't a terrorist. He was a murderer.

    • "And I wonder when American msm will start to talk about how US domestic terrorism has increased substantially since Obama took over."

      Rudy, is that you? ;-)

  3. Paul, your highlighting of "wrecked, anarchic, dirt-poor countries" sounds almost… neoconservative. After all, it's not just that these countries are poor – right? It's that they're poor and anarchic. We could throw millions of dollars of financial aid at Yemen, and it wouldn't chance things unless and until there was a government infrastructure in place that could put the money to good (and appropriate) use. Right?

    Or let's look at it from another angle. As you say, there are lots of countries with large Muslim populations. There are also lots of countries with huge poverty. Most of the countries in either of those categories aren't producing terrorists. There are also a certain number of countries that have both – large Muslim populations and huge poverty. But – though I haven't drawn out a list – I suspect that most of these countries also aren't producing terrorists. It's not just 'Muslim countries,' obviously. But it's also not just 'poor Muslim countries.' It appears to be 'poor Muslim countries that are also failed states.' (Plus Iran, which is a tyranny.)

    Many, many moons ago I tried to think through the connection between 'undemocratic government' – which I think could include both failed statism and tyranny – on the one hand, and terrorism on the other. But one need not agree that there's a causal link in order to conclude that,, whatever the relationship, the best way to stop failed, poor states from being breeding grounds of terror is to stop them from being failed, poor states.

    And that, in a nutshell, is the neoconservative project. Welcome aboard.

      • I'll talk to Perle and Podhoretz and see what I can rustle up.

      • Apparently there is a decoder ring….although given the cost of Iraq one might reasonably argue that a set of Macleans steak knives are in order. but it may still be too early to say.

    • And yet we cant even stop people in our own country from making poor choices. For example, how do you stop the alcoholic from becoming an alcoholic. External power alone wont do it, although it is necessary to force consequences on people and/or limit those consequences from others. This is where the application of power makes some sense.

      Once again, I worry about just how much effort, money, time and political capital you spend trying to solve someone elses problem as opposed to trying to mitigate the effects of their slide. No easy answer and we see what the certain costs of war, and the unintended costs of war, and the uncertain benefits of "liberation" will bring in Iraq. It may all turn out in 20 years to have been one enormous payoff. But the US probably never could, and certainly cannot now, bankroll these kinds of bets.

      However, the challenge is that if we dont figure out how to bring failed states into some element of normalcy then we will be left bombing the crap out of them and living with the consequences of that. It works, but we dont (thank goodness) have the stomach to do it as a long term strategy.

    • It's good to hear someone who realizes that the things are interconnected. So many argue against one thing as the cause with "No! It's Islam, not poverty!" or "No It's not Poverty! It's Islam!"

      The things have to come together to create the ground for the thing to 'prosper'. Now some will argue that correlation is not causality. I think that's fine in the hard sciences. I think it's less effective as an argument in the softer humanist 'sciences' and politics and economics.

      I think that if you could break one of the linked 'causes', the others will fall apart. Which one, and the means to break it is where the ideological battle then begins.

    • "'undemocratic government' – which I think could include both failed statism and tyranny"

      by its definition, failed states = lack of government; not 'undemocratic government'. tyrannical governments are usually strong states, not failed states (see: Fukuyama). the neoconservative project seems to be about toppling tyrannical governments and creating failed states (i.e. Iraq). aside from creating the conditions for terrorism to flourish in the resulting anarchy, the blowback from such foreign interventions is the prime recruiting tool for terrorists.

      to sum up, the neoconservative 'project': Not Helping.

  4. "The goal of asymmetrical warfare is to use trivial tools—a box cutter, a motorboat loaded with explosives, a pair of trick underpants—to goad the enemy into massive, bankrupting, demoralizing overreaction."

    I think you underestimate the role of nihilism as a motive. Religion, anti-americanism etc. are covers for actions that are often purely destructive in their goals. Sort of super-vandalism. This is why the link to poverty is not a reliable one.

    • Implication: an anarchic but wealthy country would not produce terrorists?

      • In theory perhaps. But try pointing to a wealthy AND anarchic country. Anarchy breads poverty because wealth creation requires rules, authority, a social contract of some kind (even an authoritarian one, ie. China). There are poor tyranies and there are poor anarchies. But there are no wealthy anarchies because in an anarchy there is no incentive or means to create and maintain wealth.

      • I don't think this is about countries at all. In many cases, the individuals involved are effectively without a country, inasmuch as they are migrants in an alien culture and have no attachment or loyalty to the country of their birth.

        Such individuals have always existed, and have attached themselves to various criminal or revolutionary movements depending on time and geography. America has generated its own homegrown terrorists, and most countries have suffered from them at one time or another.

        Poverty and anarchy may be an effective environment for the ideologues and political trouble makers to hide and prosper and are thus worth cleaning up for that and other humanitarian reasons, but terrorism will not die as a result.

        • 'Country". Read: society, culture.

          And clearly the loyalty to that society/culture/country has been transferred to the Ideology of Resentment.

          Terrorism will die when it has nothing to express against.

          • I actually think the act of terrorism is psychopathic, just like murder, rape and other serious crimes, and I see terrorist groups as criminal gangs. If you look at groups like the IRA, you can see that their political goals become less and less important as time goes by, while their criminal activity increases. By their nature, they attract psychopaths into their midst, and they then commit the awful crimes we have seen.

            As for "nothing to express against", this makes no sens in this context. What they are expressing against is the normal everyday world, a world they feel excluded from and which they come to hate to the point of mass murder.

          • 1) "Psychopath": A binary objectifying argument casting it as an Us/Them thing rather than an interrelated whole. What a group may express may be to "Us" as irrational, but isn't necessarily psychopathic, in a truly Psychological definition; neither 'mad" nor a chronic mental disorder. Throwing that label assumes "Us" is normal.

            … and it assumes once again, a single chain of direct cause and effect with a fixed beginning.

            "By their nature, they attract psychopaths into their midst, and they then commit the awful crimes we have seen."

            :-) I have said the same thing about the CPC. :-)

            More, this connects better with the Ideology of Resentment, than a true psychopathy. It's a process of replacing and affirming an individual identity in terms of other individuals affirming your own resentments and perceptions – real or perceived.

            2) And in your second paragraph, you seem to confirm the hypothesis. You seem to assume that what we in the west have – and have done – is the "normal everyday world". They aren't expressing against their own conditions, their own "normal everyday world". They are expressing against our "normal everyday world". Those two things just aren't the same .

          • Well, I think you can probably get a better definition of psychopath than that! but I get your point.

            I am not saying that my little theory applies to all cases, but I think it works in a decent number. And yes, terrorists do express against their own "normal everyday world"; we have focussed on the recent jihadists, but they are just one instance of terrorism.

            In any event, the attacks in England and Spain were actually carried out by locals.

          • I don't want to sound slippery, and I formed this whole idea just this afternoon, but those guys in Spain and England substituted their own identities with an Ideology of Resentment, so their own normal was abandoned, and now, as The Other, they could strike against something that was no longer them.

          • Related to that, the frightening thing (or at least one more frightening thing) is that terrorist outfits like Al Quaeda are doing a huge amount of their financing through outright criminal activity. Exhibit A is the heroin trade via Afghanistan. That's an incredibly profitable business. Al Quaeda and all its members are, and will continue to be, hooked on that revenue stream. The criminal enterprise takes on a life of its own, regardless of the related ideological element.

            A good related read is McMafia, by Misha Glenny. I recommend it.

  5. When living in Saudi Arabia (the home of Osama, in case anyone forgot after playing shoot the groundhog in places Afghanistan and Yemen for so long like) their most revered site, the Holy Mosque in Mecca was taken over by a small raggety band of fundamentalists, it took a while for the Saudi armed forces to winkle the baddies out – but they did.
    Then justice was meted out – in what we Westerners called "chop squares" all over the Kingdom – public beheadings! I haven't heard too much in the way of internal strife since then.
    Maybe – and I'm not normally a death sentence advocate – maybe – for this kind of crime – the Saudis have it right – the death sentence might well be a deterrent. These guys want to die anyway – but threatening them with a death with martyrdom might achieve the same end of deterrence.
    Wait a minute though – isn't that what Imams all over North America have been doing for the last week or two – stating that there is nothing in the Koran that rewards any fool who takes innocent lives as a way to martyrdom. Maybe we should just wait and see if that particular approach works.

    • I dont see it as a deterent but an end. Hard for them to continue to preach and more importantly teach (which they do in jail) if they are dead. Brutal response, but perhaps on an individual level this is the case. They carry with them an certian irredemability, Saudi art therapy notwithstanding (I still have trouble believeing this).

      I too am not a captial punishment advocate for our society. But as a way of stamping out the head guys, whether by predator, bullett or noose giving the leaders of the death cult what they preach is a method that needs serious consideration and testing.

    • Absolutely, Saudi Arabia has been absolutely ducky since those guys were killed. No problems at all.

      • The Egyptian govt was also extremely ruthless in its dealings with the Islamic extremists who were involved in, and sympathetic to, the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It was an absolutely brutal crackdown. And yet most credible accounts of the effect of this approach conclude that this either had no effect on dampening the movement, and many argue that it even emboldened them. A good account of this (and the latter argument) is contained in Wright's book The Looming Tower: Al Quaeda and the Road to 9/11 (which won the Pulitzer Prize, for what it's worth).

    • Maybe we should just wait and see if that particular approach works.

      Do we really have to play the wait-and-see game of My Imam Can Kick Your Imam's Ass?

  6. //“Consider this hypothetical,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic three years ago. “It's November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America's soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm . . . //

    Not quite. Obama is bombing the hell out of Pakistan with a strategy right out of Terminator 3.

    Obama is George-W. Bush-lite. A black face on American exceptionalism and neo-imperialism. Obama is continuing all of W's wars, on drugs, on terror, in Iraq, expanding the on in Afghanistan, and starting a couple of his own with Pakistan and a trade war with China. Plus starting the progressive version of a neo-iimperialist war on the world's poor with the war on the climate.

    Obama followed through on Bush's bailout of the banksters, who are now making more money than ever because of taxpayer bailoutsl And like Bush, sold out to the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

    He also sold out women's reproductive rights in the health care reform bill.

    • Look, some of your points are valid, but come on, the US ain't exactly "bombing the hell out of Pakistan". A few targeted Predator drone strikes in the NW border regions does not equal bombing the hell out of a country.

  7. Excellent analysis. I particularly like this :

    "A lot of people seem able to muster a lot of easy certainty about terrorism, what causes it, how to stop it. Which is odd, when you consider that the whole business of blowing things up is the work of madmen intent on spreading chaos."

    • And yet that is also an easy certainty…..the madmen intent of spreading chaos part…..if thats all it is then it is also too easy to dismiss.

      Its defies simplistic explainations….which if it lent itself to that we could bring mighty resources to bear on the problem. The lack of simple, clean identifiable causes makes it very difficult for western nations, and the US in particular to deal with it. The British at least were able to muddle through "the troubles" partially because they understood there was no single battle to be won. For the moment the problem is chonic and we need to husband our resources. There may come a time that we can have bring about a finishing blow…..we almost had it in Afghanistan in 2001/2002 but that time passed.

      • As Wells wrote :

        "The goal of asymmetrical warfare is to use trivial tools—a box cutter, a motorboat loaded with explosives, a pair of trick underpants—to goad the enemy into massive, bankrupting, demoralizing overreaction."

        There will never be enough resources to defeat this sort of terrorism, nor will there ever be a finishing blow.

        • Re the finishing blow…..it may never happen, in which case the terrorism either peters out over time or they have moved on to the next stage. To ulitmately win, assuming the west doesnt exhaust itself first (my concern) the other side will need to move to a more organized way. Which is what happened when they had afghanistan, at least by proxy. There are powers that go with being a state or being in control of one. Yet the closer they get to this the more they enter the realm of Western strength…its a paradox for both sides.

          I said we are "lucky" if they move to that stage earlier than they are ready, however them getting control of something like Pakistan would be a real problem, plays to Western strengths. We may never get there, and if that the case then our appropriate response is to keep our defence at an appropriate level, not overspend (I think we are in agreement here) and husband our resources for a longer term fight and one that is taking place on a differerent level.

          • The prerequisite for the end of terrorism by those who pretend to interpret Islam as calling for a war on other Abrahamic religions is to convince Muslim leaders to deal with the threat in their midst. Muslims who do not believe in total war against non-Muslims must hold their leadership accountable. It is they who will suffer the most by the triumph of these nihilists.

          • I have said elsewhere, that where the extremist interpretation rules it loses support. So the moderates dont speak out because they either agree or are scared into submission. I want to believe it is the latter and offering succor to the extremists is not a recipie for encouraging the moderates.

    • "Excellent analysis. I particularly like this :

      "A lot of people seem able to muster a lot of easy certainty about terrorism, what causes it, how to stop it. Which is odd, when you consider that the whole business of blowing things up is the work of madmen intent on spreading chaos."

      I quite enjoyed the article, but that was the one sentence that I found problematic. The moment we stop trying to understand what motivates terrorists by calling them deranged psychos is the moment we deny our ability to prevent terrorism or deal with it effectively.

    • Not madmen. Muslims. Educated, exposed to western life, often with good jobs and money. Nonetheless, like the over 40% of Muslim university student surveying in England in 2008, they believe things like "all Muslims who change their religion should be killed". They are not mad, they are completely sane murderers.

  8. You betcha. So it's an un-proveable hypothesis and failed argument.

  9. "Al-Qaeda used to work in large groups with meticulous planning. The 9/11 plotters, the 7/7 bombers in London, the Atocha Station train saboteurs in Madrid, struck in many places at once. Their murders took months to plan and needed extraordinary discipline. Abdulmutallab was just a guy with hot pants. "

    Really? How did he acquire high explosives (PET)? How did he acquire the acid catalyst?

  10. "He tried to detonate them when the plane he was riding was nearly empty of fuel and seriously compromised as a weapon. "

    And again you don't know what you're talking about. You detonate explosives during landing because that can mess up the landing and the plane's energy does the rest. The same small amount of explosives, 30,000 feet in the air, would decompress the cabin, sure, maybe kill a few people. But as long as the plane's control systems weren't compromised it might still be flyable, if the pilot has time to regain control of the plane, and at 30,000 feet he has plenty.

    By contrast, if you detonate close to landing, you're going to mess up the landing cycle, cause the plane to miss the runway, whatever. Also, fuel tanks are the most explosive when they're nearly empty, because the fuel is a vapour not a liquid and it's mixed with air.

    • Terrorism also requires an audience to be effective. An explosive decompression at 30,000 feet that no one sees doesn't quite provide the same effect as a flaming wreck of an airliner hurtling to the ground over a massive metropolitan area, likely full of video cameras.

    • I believe his mission was to detonate over US soil…..for what I have heard.

      of course I dont think he figured out he was over Chatham Ontario when he tried. It might be just too much to expect for these guys to be completely accurate, given their state of mind and potentially drug addled minds (done to ensure they are "calm" in customs)

  11. In addition to the money wasted and the potential for lives lost by encouraging driving over air travel, those body scanners aren't entirely safe – they're basically low-powered X-rays. Now, X-rays are quite safe and chances are if you need one, the risk of damage by the radiation they employ is so low that it's worth the risk. But that risk is not zero. Likewise, while these full body scanners are even safer per use, if used for routine screening at airports, the overall radiation they add to the population will not be negligible. Given enough use, they have a decent chance of causing life-ending cancer in one traveler – and that's one more than the underwear bomber managed to kill.

    Our officials' responses to terrorism are ensuring that even when we win – when we stop attacks, prevent deaths – we still lose. A murderer achieves his objective when he kills someone. A terrorist achieves his objective when he makes us afraid enough to make us do stupid things. I don't know of any plan to outright stop murder, or even terrorists who engage in murder. But we can stop terrorism, without any cost, and that's by simply not giving in to our own fears.

  12. Abdulmutallab got as far as he did cause our security apparatus is overly complex and naturally fragmented. It took an alert human to do at the last minute, what should have been done much earlier in this sequence of events. (His FATHER had tagged him goodness sakes.)

    Had GW Bush been an alert human on Aug 6 2001 then Sept 11 2001 might not be an infamous date.

    A far better focus for this discussion is the very successful bomber who took out the top CIA guys in Afghanistan.
    Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a 36-year-old doctor from the town of Zarqa, Jordan.

    Why was a Jordanian doctor in Afghanistan? Why was he called a triple agent?
    What does this mean for OUR mission in Afghanistan?

    • You're right that that story is among the least-noticed very important news stories of the last while.

  13. You understand, of course, that the fact that one crazy person tried to burn a plane down doesn't mean President Obama's election didn't have a soft power effect on other potential terrorists?

    • Sadly, I think Wells has taken this one incident to try to disprove Andrew Sullivan's statement, difficult as it is to believe. He's a provacateur, or something.

      Sure, Obama's election is not going to deter every terrorist. Duh. But I think it's a safe bet that his election has done more to deter more terrorists today than during the Bush era. Do we have the metrics to actually gauge this? Of course not. And what Obama's election doesn't mean, of course, is that terrorists who have been plotting their missions for the past months or years are simply going to put down their shoulder-fired missile launchers and pack away the explosives until President Palin arrives (although we don't know this for sure either).

      But I guarantee you that the younger generation in states that produce terrorists may well be effected by the presence of a president that not only looks and sounds like Obama, but also thinks like Obama. We're not going to see the effect of his presidency for years, same way we didn't see the effects of the Nixon presidency or even the Reagan presidency for years after their departure on a host of policy issues.

      But to do what Wells does here, and draw this massive conclusion about the failure of Obama's bid for soft power…yeah, Jesse, it fails to compute on every level.

    • You are missing the issue altogether. Terrorism is conducted by organizations. Yes, there are times when recruitment will be easier and times when it will be harder, but manpower is probably Al Quaeda's most abundant resource (other than maybe sand). Imagine a terrorist organization with 10,000 possible suicide bombers. Obama gets elected, and 9,000 quit. The organization still has 1,000 people willing to die (and probably still lacks the resources to ensure all 1,000 can get their wish).

      Soft power doesn't and won't work. Al Quaeda wants a Middle East free of American influence. Obama or any American president will never acquiesce to this – America needs oil. Soft power can help a little in that it makes cooperating with the US politically easier. However, this doesn't apply to most states in the middle east because most states in the region are dictatorships that are not beholden to public opinion.

      International relations is about interests. America and Al Quaeda have irrevocably conflicted interests. However, the US has some common interests with most states in the middle east. The goal should be to get Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. onside in the war on terror – not on convincing terrorists to give up their ways (an approach that will surely fail).

  14. Unfortunately, the Nixon doctrine has backfired. The most obvious example is the Taliban themselves, who were funded by the US to fight the Russians, but since turned around and used that money (and more importantly, the power that the won with American support) to attack America. The current terrorist movement has its very roots in the Nixon doctrine.

    Furthermore, the Nixon doctrine has been abused constantly since it's inception. While it's all well and good to say that they can interfere to bring about good, since these actions are done in relative secrecy to provide that indirectness, they can equally be use to America's advantage in ways that don't build democracy or build nations – and it already has. Whether or not it's effective, the overt wars are at least a bit more transparent – we may not like what's going on in Iraq or Afghanistan, but at least for the most part we know what's going on!

    Undoubtedly, the current method of dealing with terrorists has flaws, major ones, but the Nixon doctrine would simply be another way to reform the cycle of antagonism towards the west that's been on-going since the end of the first world war – where our interference sows as many seeds of violence as it prevents.

    • I don't doubt that the Nixon doctrine has its flaws. The mujahadeen (different from the Taliban) were indeed aided by the US in the 80's, as was Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. I have no problem with a government that switches sides in order to protect vital interests. The aim, by the way, is not do-goodery, nation-building or the spread of democracy. The core aim of the Nixon doctrine is to prevent the emergence of regional hegemons capable of challenging US power and to protect vital strategic interests. The US can't afford to save the world indefinitely – the best it can do is prevent threats from developing relatively early on.

      As for terrorism, terrorists need something to attack. If direct American involvement in the middle east or wherever is limited, there are going to be few viable targets. The main targets would be economic – since the US interacts with the middle east in that regard. However, since the oil trade is the bread and butter of the region, you can be damn sure that local governments will do what they can to prevent attacks on their main source of revenue.

      We need oil, we need natural resources, and we need to remain watchful against the emergence of dominant regional players in strategically important regions. We should be clearer about that – Bush Sr. made a big mistake by being ambiguous about Kuwait. At the same time, there are ways of intervening that will limit our vulnerability and our footprint overseas. We may cause resentment, but we will offer our enemies few targets and harsh reprimands.

  15. "But it takes real effort to miss the trend here. Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are countries with large Muslim populations…The other thing they have in common is that they're also wrecked, anarchic, dirt-poor countries where millions of people have no hope."

    Geez, you had me going there, but I thought you were going to say camels. Don't you see, Paul, all these countries have oodles of camels.

    I mean, if being surrounded by these surly hump-backed freaks of nature doesn't make you want to set your underwear on fire, what will?

    Also, your thesis has been disproven many times,

    See here:
    https://umdrive.memphis.edu/rblanton/public/POLS1

    and here:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=tzQobMX-nNAC&amp

    And it does not explain bin Laden, the shoe bomber, or the Toronto 18, to cite just a few examples.

    There is a much closer inverse link between political development and terrorism than there is between poverty and terrorism

    • Paul is offering a different argument than the one you are refuting. He isn't talking about the motivations of individual terrorists themselves (which is a fairly unimportant issue – it is easy to find people who will die for a cause, how many millions signed up in WWI for instance?), but about organizations and where they need to operate. Effective terrorists need a remote base, and poor, anti-American failed states are a darn good place from which to operate. Crappy, poor states don't produce terrorists, they HARBOUR them.

      The Toronto 18 are a case in point. They failed utterly because the intelligence resources in advanced countries are actually pretty good. We could see what they were up to. That doesn't mean terrorism is impossible, but it limits the scale of possible attacks. Bali, Spain, and London were, frankly, pretty small potatoes (and the attacks are getting smaller). International terrorism (unlike domestic terrorism – going into Iraq saved a lot of terrorists a plane ticket) is hard to do. It requires planning, money, time, secrecy and space. Doing training exercises on a frozen lake around Orillia is not likely to succeed.

      • Bali, Spain, and London were small potatoes? Riiiight.

        And New York? If the argument is that remote, anachic and poor countries, sometimes with a lot of mountains, are a good base to hide out and/or train terrorists, well I suppose a point has been made.

        Not sure where that gets us, though.

  16. But common element, in the speeches, guilty pleas, and videotaped wills of extremists, seems to be a sense of fundamentalist humiliation about the state of things in Islamic states, and a blaming of the West for these problems, combined with an general sense of outrage against the West and its culture and ideas.

  17. Dick Cheney, who was vice-president during the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, feels qualified to heckle Obama from the sidelines.

    I believe most of the Cheneyan heckling has been about the decision to treat Captain Underpants as a thug criminal with all the rights the US justice system can offer, rather than an enemy attacking the country. Hard to see that Cheney is off with that analysis.

  18. "If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology"

    That is the 'Big Lie'. Islamic terrorism is fueled by the Qur'an. It is part and parcel of Isam and has been since the 7th century.
    Read some history. The only thing new about the 20th century version is the tools they use. No Airplanes in the 7th century. Nor plastic explosives, AK-47's or any other tools of the terrorist trade. In the 7th century, Muslim terrorists used edged weapons because that is all they had.

    • huh, and here I thought all of Osama's grievances were political in nature (US troops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq 1 etc)

  19. I'm not sure what the hell your point is Paul. Nothing to worry about here if we just place nice with Islam?
    The "added sixteen layers of security" aren't necessary. Screen all Muslims (whoops, I mean terrorists) face to face, like Israel, so they don't realize it. Instead of a brain dead rent-a-cop looking through your underwear under our phoney security system we would get security without the insane exercises we are currently subjected to .

  20. That's a lot to consider hypothetically, but very interesting.

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