Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What’s So Important About the Abdulmutallab Affair?

What’s So Important About the Abdulmutallab Affair?

The Crux of the Matter

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt at bombing Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 certainly has rekindled Americans’ interest in terrorism and security. Until recently, security issues for many citizens seemed to focus on complaints about the endless lines and burdensome procedures at airports. In fact, far too many of us, presumed that the world’s most serious terrorist groups had lost interest in U.S. domestic attacks after the post-9/11 changes in security and the bevy of heavy-duty U.S. military operations aimed at destroying terrorist groups worldwide. But now, with Abdulmutallab’s one bungled attempt, security is once again captured Americans’ attention.

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of Abdulmutallab’s failure accusations and finger pointing prevail as well as the usual attempts to identify the relevant security gaps and improvements in security procedures. However, since very little is known either about the reasons for the attack or just why he was selected for the operation, the options reviewed have been largely limited to arguments about the means for plugging the various security holes exploited by Abdulmutallab in his failed attempt. And in the end, since the information that has emerged has provided little more than some background accounts on Abdulmutallab, his purported relationships with radical Muslim clerics, and an incomplete picture of his possible connections to one or another terrorist group, most of the security recommendations have all the hallmarks of “locking the barn door after the horse has left” or opportunities for showpiece political one-upmanship.

In the final analysis, we believe that it is this incomplete information — both in understanding the current wave of Islamist terrorism and our on-going failure of imagination — that constitutes the crux of the problem that America and Americans face today with respect to terrorism and security. While we are chasing after the security gaps that allowed Abdulmutallab to board and potentially destroy one airplane, we still seem to be missing many – if not most – of the critical information necessary to prevent potential future terrorist attacks that can severely damage and disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure and our economy. Thus, although there have been endless reports that outline the factors related to specific terrorist tactics (such as the measures employed in hijacking, bombing, and the gaps and failures in security), we still know very little about terrorist strategies (the sequence of operations employed by the world’s various terrorist groups) and the kinds of major actions being planned for the future. Even more significant, while we have generally focused on the methods used in past events and the associated preventative measures, there is almost no information on what security measures work, what doesn’t, or how to improve the efficiency of security operations.

Regrettably, it appears as if we are preparing for the repetition of past attacks and devoting very little energy to developing a foundation for making reasonable judgments about the broad range of security policies and operations that will be required to protect the nation.

What Is Known and What Is Unknown?

A fact of life in U.S. security today is that, while we have developed detailed accounts of virtually every past terrorist action, the central concern of the 9/11 Commission about September 11, 2001, is still on the back burner. Although we have piles of data on just what happened to the USS Cole in the harbor in Aden and are now accumulating equally detailed data about Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt, little has been done about the failures of imagination that leave terrorists with misunderstood motivations and open opportunities. And underlying our failure of imagination is a keen sense of denial based on information that has little relevance to their motivations and goals — denying, for example, that there is anything more to Islamist terrorism than frustrations with modernity, poverty, concerns about the influence of the West, and potential political power grabs.

For the most part, we have treated the Islamists as if they are simply waiting for a relief program from the West that would provide an easy transition to Western culture and Western values. But even with the enormous military efforts devoted to destroying “them” before “they” can attack us and the open-handed support for the current regimes in the Middle East, Islamist terrorist groups have obviously been able to spread, expand their numbers, and continue to operate against the U.S. and the West.

Since 9/11, the most senior members of al Qaeda have been the focus of a worldwide manhunt. Yet in these eight plus years, not only has much of the leadership remained at large, but the group has continued not only to be able to operate and but to extend its reach well beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in which it is supposedly contained. Nevertheless, based on what amounts to little more than idiosyncratic information, many counter-terrorist organizations and agencies now appear to believe that it is only a matter of time before al Qaeda is completely destroyed and the terrorism threat is permanently removed.

Unfortunately, Islamists have recognized this failure in the U.S. counterterrorism and security posture and have consistently used it to their advantage. Consider, for example, the possibility that Abdulmutallab does not represent the vanguard of a new wave of terrorism aimed at the United States but, rather, is simply a committed young man who was sent on a disinformation mission aimed at convincing Americans that al Qaeda no longer has the ability to mount major attacks aimed at the Western economies or U.S. infrastructure. By playing on his vainglorious dreams of religious glory and paradise it is likely that the leadership of al Qaeda or members of its now multiple clones simply used Abdulmutallab as a means to spread distorted information about their next major attacks by, once again, convincing Americans that they are now only capable of attacking individual airliners.

Even under the best of circumstances, disinformation operations can be difficult to detect and in the context of the now geographically dispersed, highly decentralized terrorist groups it may be close to impossible at this time. For unlike the situation at the outset of World War II, the U.S. and the West have not succeeded in developing an analogue to the MAGIC decoders. This is due in part because the United States and the West continue to believe that terrorist groups use Western-style hierarchical organizations and chains of command. While it is quite possible that such disinformation signals would not work were we able to imagine that the Islamists have little interest in adopting the ways of the West, in the absence of a viable source of imagination even. Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt has become cause for serious concern throughout the Republic.

To make matters worse, U.S. citizens continue to believe that attacks on the United States will derive from individuals and groups operating outside the country (rather than from sleeper cells comprised largely of American citizens) and that the critical targets – generally speaking, those that can result in deaths – are also domestic. Again, we fail to comprehend what the terrorist threat amounts to – the failure of our information sources to provide insights on motivations, goals, and perhaps most importantly the strategies employed. And this then leaves us to concentrate on the Abdulmutallab’s of the world rather than on the individuals and groups that are likely to employ far more destructive and disruptive attacks. Equally significantly, many Americans believe that attacks on domestic targets – and particularly those that can cause deaths —are those from which we have the most to fear. Once again, it is the failure to recognize that actions outside the United States—such as a blockade of the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca — would be far more destructive and disruptive to the U.S. and the global economy as a whole than any modest action aimed at a single passenger aircraft.

Even the information that we now possess concerning al Qaeda’s actions and planning over the past decade would indicate that relatively modest attacks carried out by the likes of Abdulmutallab are hardly consistent with their long-term objectives or operational methods. Whatever else we may think of the attacks on the USS Cole, New York, and Washington DC, they certainly were not amateurish. With a relatively simple, well-placed attack using only a small boat and two committed Jihadists, al Qaeda was able to achieve a major redeployment of the US Navy’s refueling and reprovisioning operations. And even though the attacks on 9/11 were only partially successful from al Qaeda’s perspective, they were unquestionably organized and carried out to achieve widespread economic and social disruption.

Hard information on terrorism has been difficult for the United States to secure, and the possibility that what is observed is disinformation makes it all the more so. With the recent ground swell over Abdulmutallab’s failed bombing attempt and the rush to find ways to plug the perceived security gaps, there is even a greater risk that the continuing focus on commercial airplanes will only further distort our understanding of terrorism and misdirect our focus on appropriate security measures.

Take Aways from the Abdulmutallab Affair

We must understand that Islamist terrorists’ motivations and goals are directed less at revenge than at a reckoning. For these terrorists, it is the future of Islam that is at stake and even though eye-for-an-eye repayments are often desired, far more important are the opportunities for attacks that could result in a clear decline in the West’s ability to continue to influence Islam. Thus, while the Abdulmutallab affair has occupied our imaginations since Christmas Day, we have yet to understand the meaning of his actions. While the destruction of a passenger airliner would capture headlines, simple death and destruction is probably a minor concern to the Islamist leadership.

Groups such as al Qaeda have shown remarkable survival ability— even in view of the massive counterterrorist operations over the past eight or so years. Part of this success is due to their ability to maintain a clear internal focus while, at the same time, relying on the West to distort much of the information that would be required for an effective and efficient counter-force. In effect, we have been fighting a serious, committed enemy based on a distorted picture of the threat. Al Qaeda and others have recognized this weakness and have capitalized on this distortion by simply continuing to arrange for signals that support our on-going failures of imagination: to wit, the Abdulmutallab affair.

Had Abdulmutallab been successful, there is little doubt that the United States would have reacted with major firepower directed at one or more of the Middle Eastern Jihadist training facilities. But as in the past, such retributive acts would probably only have played into the Islamist script, which calls for distorted information and an ever-narrowing field of imagination. But even in failure, the Abdulmutallab affair will likely turn into a modest success for the jihadists since there will undoubtedly be both a sizable witch-hunt directed at determining who left the doors ajar and the dedication of whatever security expertise the United States can muster to plug security holes that are of little real consequence.

Perhaps Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was an unwitting agent for clever Islamist strategists. Or he may have known in part the role he was to play in the disinformation package being served to the West. Either way, his failure will embolden the Islamist leaders and strategists. It is yet another example of how easily the West can be stymied by fixating on what we think the enemy should be doing —as if he were us— rather than concentrating on the enemy’s real objectives.