Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Doubting the wisdom of men who stick fireworks in their crotch

I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?

If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?

Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.


2 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I’ve just clued in to your blog – keep up the good work!

    While I agree with much of your analysis, I’d like to make a couple of points if I may:

    First, I think you’re making the dangerous mistake of limiting ‘useful information’ to knowledge of future attacks. ‘What he knows’ could also refer to who he met in Yemen, the individual who initially contacted him, where he obtained the explosive device etc etc. All useful information. (This said – I am in no way condoning the use of torture, both for moral and practical reasons!)

    Second, you’re correct in stating that from a CT perspective, this case is hardly significant. I think what IS significant, from a terrorism studies perspective, is that this attack signals a clear shift in the orientation of AQAP from one that has been traditionally Gulf-focused to one that is US/international focused – clearly this is fa prospect that frightens a lot of people.

  2. Hi Charlie

    You are right that I used a limited definition, and indeed the media is reporting the FBI has obtained ‘usable, actionable’ information from him.
    However torture is usually advocated as a way to prevent new attacks, rather than as a standard information gathering tool. Though sadly the moral descent of those advocating it continues leading to its suggested use as almost standard practice.
    Not every terrorist is equally dangerous or knowledgeable, and making this difference clear is a way to help push back against those who make the case for action.

    I hadn’t fully considered your second point, however it is a good one. Perhaps this is a more serious attack than I’d considered, however other forces such as the surprising change to an administration that admits fault, and the partisan temperature in the US are driving the public debate.

    Thanks for your comments.