“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.