Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There Are Lots of Lessons from the Detroit Flight Terrorist Attack: Why is No One in Government Paying Attention?

By Barry Rubin

In his reaction to the attempted terrorist attack on the flight for Detroit, President Barrack Obama gave his analysis:

“This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist."

If this means that only one extremist was on the plane, then certainly he could be overpowered by courageous passengers. But the “isolated extremist” concept has been used by the administration in two other ways. First, the government has hit on the idea--used repeatedly from the Los Angeles airport shooting of people at the El Al counter, to the Fort Hood attack--that if it can argue a terrorist attack was carried out by an individual, it just doesn’t count as real terrorism. While there was no question in this case about defining the attack as terrorism, this is still an important point regarding the misuse of this concept with other incidents.

Much more important, however, the president and the administration have often suggested that those who carry on Islamist terrorism are marginalized heretics, isolated extremists, small groups which enjoy little mass support. In fact, though, this is part of a systematic war conducted by radical Islamists who enjoy lots of funding, popular support, and safe havens.

To be fair, the United States is conducting a real war against these extremists in Yemen, as well as Afghanistan. Here's what Obama said:

"We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland."

I don't know whether one should make too much of his list of countries, though it might be analyzed. These are all countries were al-Qaida is active and this list poses no political problems. Presumably, the terrorists from Pakistan are basically Afghan Taliban while Yemen must be included since it is the place where the latest attack came from. But the list might include, for example, Saudi Arabia, the place where the September 11 hijackers and some of the leaders of the Yemen-based attackers came from.

At any rate, the latest attack on an airliner is in part retaliation for that U.S. offensive. Shouldn’t the American people know about this connection between attacking their enemies and being hit in return? After all, for example, isn't the profiling of airline passengers appropriate if the assaults are all coming from revolutionary Islamists of largely Middle Eastern origin?

And most important of all, shouldn't the government be aware of the implications of fighting a powerful movement which is seeking control of many individual countries, the Middle East, and even the world as a whole?

Let’s look at the list of information, supplied by ABC News, CNN, and Reuters

--He told FBI agents that there were more just like him in Yemen who would strike soon. He also said that he was trained in Yemen and given the explosives there.

--In a tape released four days before the attack, the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen stated, "We are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of God."

--The Muslim cleric who advised Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood terrorist, is now with al-Qaida in Yemen. But to talk honestly about that, the president would have to describe Hasan as a radical Islamist terrorist. Nothing could be more obvious; yet the obvious—to the danger of everyone—is denied.

--Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has since claimed responsibility for the attack. This is linked to the larger al-Qaida which is being protected by U.S. “ally” Pakistan and which operates also in conjunction with Syria in attacking Americans in Iraq.

--Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the plot were released by the United States from Guantanamo prison in November 9, 2007, sent to a Saudi rehabilitation program. They are prisoner #333, Muhammad Attik al-Harbi (now known as Muhammad al-Awfi), and prisoner #372, Said Ali Shari. The Saudis certified them as rehabilitated and released them. This provides some lessons about the reliability of the Saudis and the fact that it is better to keep such people in prison rather than release them (or send them to Illinois?)

--In Funtua, Nigeria, Abdulmutallab's hometown, they blame his wealth and foreign education for his becoming an Islamist revolutionary. A local student said, "We the children of the masses in this country, we don't know anything about terrorism because our parents are poor.” Another resident added, "My only advice to the elite is to allow their children to mingle with the children of the masses so that [they] will have some of the traditional morals and values….”

This is an extraordinarily important statement. Ideology, systemic failure of their own regimes and societies, and fear that the very attractiveness of Western life will transform them into similar modernized, secular societies—not poverty and Western foreign policy--are the real problems.

In addition, traditional Islam in most places was socially reactionary but also relatively moderate. While jihad was part of the sacred texts, no one was advocating that it be carried out. Suicide attacks were viewed as a heretical activity.

But just as leftism has succeeded in reinterpreting liberalism in many places, so has revolutionary Islamism reinterpreted conservative traditional Islam. Both movements have used deep-seated beliefs and values, but also made them into something quite different.

The Obama Administration should acknowledge that the United States confronts a huge—but not united--revolutionary movement which has major assets. Elements control Iran, Syria (not Islamist but allied with it), Sudan, the Gaza Strip, and now in part Lebanon, too. There are major elements in the Pakistani and Turkish governments that lend it aid and comfort. It is also fueled by Saudi Wahabi Islam and money. It is fighting in two dozen countries, from Indonesia, the Philippines, China, and Thailand in the east, to Morocco and even within Europe on the western flank. That movement is also challenging for authority in every Arabic-speaking country and trying to destroy Israel.

For some reason, however, I don’t think that admission and requisite polici shift is going to happen. As a result, the United States is handicapped from defending itself.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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