There are two important lessons to be learned from the bungled attempt on Christmas Day to cause an explosion on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit: (1) the need to remain vigilant against the threat posed by terrorists, and (2) recognition of the importance of Yemen, a state that has proved to be a breeding ground for extremists and risks becoming another failed state. It is vitally important that the proper conclusions be drawn from the failed attack and that hysterical over-reactions be avoided.
On Christmas day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the quiet son of a prominent Nigerian banker, flew from Lagos to Amsterdam, where he then boarded a flight for Detroit. Just before that flight landed, Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite an incendiary device hidden in his underwear. Alert passengers grabbed him as the device fizzled and managed to avert an explosion.
Investigation of the incident revealed a number of security failures. Abdulmutallab’s father, alarmed by his son’s behavior — he had cut off communication with his family, gone to Yemen and was associating with extremists — contacted U.S. officials in Nigeria to warn them. This got the young man on a watch list, but did not result in termination of his visa for the U.S., nor did it warrant placement on a no-fly list. Intelligence officials did not cross-reference this data with an earlier warning about a Nigerian being trained for an al-Qaida attack. Having studied in the United Kingdom, British intelligence apparently had information on Abdulmutallab, but it is not clear what they shared with their counterparts in the U.S., Europe and Africa. Plainly, even after the appalling failures of Sept. 11, 2001, intelligence agencies are not communicating with each other.
Second, airline security remains weak. Abdulmutallab was not physically searched when he boarded the plane to the U.S. Equipment that could have detected the incendiary device, while deployed in the Amsterdam airport, was not being used for passengers on that flight. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has passed new regulations requiring stricter scrutiny of passengers, including pat-down searches and full body scans, traveling from or through any of 14 countries. Many of the measures being adopted are already in use in Japan.
These new measures will help. But it is critical for passengers to recognize that security cannot be perfect and expecting it to be so is unrealistic. Security measures will always lag behind the creativity of terrorists. That is not a call for complacency or resignation, but rather for pragmatism. We cannot eliminate all risks. We should not be intimidated by terrorists.
Pragmatism should also prevail as the world contemplates the sorry spectacle that is Yemen. The country has been wracked by civil war for over a decade. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for 31 years, relying on dwindling oil revenues to buy off rivals and enrich his family: Yemen is ranked 154th (out of 180) on Transparency International’s corruption index, the third lowest in North Africa and the Middle East. Not surprisingly, it is ranked 151st out of 177 countries in the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The result is a government of dwindling legitimacy that controls a shrinking part of Yemen’s territory.
Al-Qaida has moved to fill the gap, aligning itself with tribes fighting Mr. Saleh. In efforts to buy peace, the president has forged alliances with extremists, which has meant freeing al-Qaida supporters if they promise not to engage in terrorism.
Today, there are thought to be several hundred al-Qaida fighters in Yemen. More worrisome are the increasing number of foreigners like Abdulmutallab who are being trained in Yemen. Al-Qaida has targeted U.S. facilities in Yemen: a car bomb was exploded near the U.S. embassy in September 2008, killing 19 people. A year ago, there was an exchange of gunfire between gunmen and police near the embassy hours after a warning of a possible attack by al-Qaida.
In the aftermath of the failed Christmas bombing, the U.S. has stepped up cooperation with the Yemeni government, providing millions of dollars in aid for security forces as well as launching air strikes against suspected al-Qaida hangouts. Dozens of militants are reported to have been killed. In response, the group has threatened to attack Western embassies in the Yemen capital, forcing them to be shut down.
Success in Yemen will require more than a counterterrorism strategy, however. The roots of the problem are deep and include poverty and corruption. Focusing only on the threat posed by the extremist groups will only ensure that the fissures in Yemen widen, undermining what little legitimacy the government can claim and making governance even more difficult. A broad-based strategy is needed, one that addresses the twin, interlinked needs of development and stability. Unfortunately, the world has shown neither the flexibility such an approach requires nor the patience that is essential to its success.
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