Umar Farouk AbdulAbdulmutallab is the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an American airliner on Christmas Day as it landed in Detroit, MI. By some standards he was an unlikely target for recruitment by radical Islamic fundamentalists. By others, he was obvious one.
Bright, educated and growing up in a world of privilege, he was the youngest of 16 children sired by his father, a high ranking banking official in Nigeria, with his two wives. His life did not mirror that of the close family ties of “the Waltons” from television fame. Abdulmutallab was sent away to an elite British boarding school in Togo where the $25,000 yearly tuition was evidently not a financial strain on his wealthy father. His life of privilege apparently enabled him to eventually attend and graduate from an English engineering college as well as afforded him the opportunity to travel the world. Many of his travels took him to the Middle East where he pursued the study of Arabic as part of his strong religious and political views as a devout Muslim.
Money and the many trappings of “the good life” do not necessarily equal a happy life. This is evidenced by his various social networking pages and Internet postings over the past few years. In a number of these postings that have been associated with “farouk1986,” representing his middle name by which he was known and the year of his birth, he described himself as lonely, indicating he had never found a true Muslim friend. “I have no one to speak too [sic],” he wrote,” no one to consult with or to support me,” causing him to feel depressed and lonely.
Abdulmutallab wrote that he did not know what to do concerning the above issues and, in an interesting case of self insight, said “I think this loneliness leads me to other problems,” perhaps referring to his being torn between liberalism and extremism as a Muslim. This would be a personal struggle in which extremism would eventually win out in his life.
In his case he may also have been referring to his innermost desire to have a personal relationship with a woman. It would be these very psychological, physical and emotional vulnerabilities that he acknowledged that may have also made him an ideal target for radicalization by those who shared his religious beliefs, but then urged him onto a level of extremism that he might never have sought on his own.
U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan — the mass murderer who shot and killed 13 and wounded 30 of his fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas this past November — shared many of the same personal attributes as found in Abdulmutallab. While 16 years older than the failed airline bomber, Hasan was also well-educated, well-traveled, lonely, socially isolated, and he too had been unable to develop a relationship with a woman with whom he could share his devote religious views. Even more interesting for investigators, though, is yet another common link: they both are believed to have communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki, the so-called spiritual adviser to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers and a senior Al Qaeda motivator and recruiter.
Al-Awlaki is a 38-year-old American-born imam who preached to the faithful in the U.S. before fleeing to Yemen in 2002. He is believed to have been killed in a Yemeni air strike about two weeks ago although his death has not been confirmed.
In speaking of the Ft. Hood massacre, al-Awlaki allegedly said the murders were acceptable in Islam because it was a form of jihad. Al-Awlaki, who easily embraced modern communications technology (he had over 5,000 friends on Facebook) was targeted by the Yemeni government and was their most wanted man. He is also believed to have provided the inspiration to the conspirators for their plot to attack Ft. Dix in 2007.
Abdulmutallab is believed to have met al-Awlaki in Yemen and the suspected airline bomber has also told investigators that he received his training as well as his explosive device from "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” a wing of Al Qaeda operating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This group is believed to be led, at least in part, by former prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility that were turned over to, and then released back into society by the Saudi’s; this after that government felt they had “reformed” from their terrorist ways.
This group now finds sanctuary with some of the eastern tribes in Yemen where the U.S. military, along with the Yemeni government, have struck as recently as this month. In fact this branch of Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for Abdulmutallab’s actions in retaliation for these same military strikes.
The profile of Abdulmutallab, who says “there are many more like him in Yemen,” is surprisingly similar to that associated with other radical Islamic fundamentalists. Many such terrorists, like the medical doctors involved in the 2007 attempt to bomb the Glasgow, Scotland airport and a number of the 9/11 hijackers were raised in privilege and came from solid families vs. from a pool of unschooled, underprivileged refugees. Like many of their brethren, they may have experienced periods of social isolation and loneliness, to include emotional alienation.
But they also eventually found themselves as members of a radicalized group that had deadly plans to carry out in the name of their shared religious beliefs. When you are reinforced by the other members of your group and lose the ability to test the mettle of your ideas and thoughts on others with different views, you may have entered on a path from which there can be no return.
In our attempt to understand the mind and motivation of a radical Islamic fundamentalist, we need to realize that there is no “one” profile for a jihadist. There are those who relate to the causes or organizations in the Muslim world, to include the conflict in the Middle East.
Then there are the “homegrown” terrorists who live in America and the Western World who become disaffected with their own country and are somehow swayed, usually by religion, to take up the cause of their foreign brothers. Then there are some converts to Islam, such as found in American prisons, whose motivation can be ascribed to a number of factors. Some share a common ideology and a shared political and religious view of the world that separates one group from the other, e.g., the believers and the infidels.
We do know that such radicalism does not develop in a total vacuum; but is part of the larger society as it evolves and changes in the nations of the world.
Stopping the Next Attack
The U.S. and other countries around the world are always in a game of “catch up” with terrorists. Al Qaeda is not too hard to figure out, though. They are set in their ways and believe that bombs are the way to go, especially when directed against civilian aviation. Every time we close the door after we have been hit, to include metal detectors at airports, the terrorists develop new tactics like liquid bombs in energy drink containers, shoe bombs, and now their newest invention, underwear bombs.
Evidently the concept of mixing a powder and a liquid together to make a bomb was tested last month when a Somali man was arrested with a device somewhat similar to Abdulmutallab’s as he attempted to fly from Mogadishu on to Dubai. Somalia, of course, is but a short trip across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and the bomb builders who ply their deadly trade in that country, what some say to be the new Afghanistan. It was in Yemen that some unidentified bomb maker is believed to have used the explosive PETN and a glycol-based liquid to construct the device Abdulmutallab carried, this in a condom-like container concealed in a six-inch long pouch in the front of his underwear to approximate part of the male genitalia.
We will of course see yet new measures taken by airlines in an attempt to deal with this new challenge to flight safety. Since metal detectors cannot detect a device such as the one used in Somalia and worn by Abdulmutallab, and since there is a dearth of bomb sniffing dogs around the world we can rely on, and since bomb-sniffing “puff” detectors have proven to be unreliable when tested at airports, we will likely see more restrictions on carry-on luggage and passenger movements while onboard airline flights.
In the area of technology, we will once again need to spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat the new terrorist bomb, one that costs at most tens of dollars to construct. While we will likely see a greater use of “behavioral profiling” by trained TSA personnel in the U.S. (to include secondary questioning and body searches) we will soon begin to see more full-body screening, something that some argue amounts to a “digital strip-search.”
While there are about 5,000 airports across the U.S., only 368 are classified by the FAA as “primary airports” (those that handle 10,000 + passenger boardings per year), but only about 40 of the $175,000 full-body scanners devices are now in service in this country. It is because of the lack of such very expensive scanners, plus the privacy concerns associated with their use, that will see a multitude of new and enhanced security measures put into place. We will strive to achieve a layered effect, i.e., the hope that “if one system doesn’t catch you another one will.”
It’s a shame that over eight years after the U.S.’s worst terrorist attack on passenger airliners that we still cannot guarantee the safety of those who take to the skies above and beyond America, but that is the current situation. And with every new security measure developed, rest assured that there are terrorists somewhere in the world developing yet new ways to commit mass murder, for many under the color of their twisted interpretation of their radicalized form of their religion.
So as we prepare to enter 2010, we do so knowing full-well that no government can completely guarantee the safety and security of its citizens. But in light of the apparent errors committed in the handling of the available intelligence concerning the “underwear bomber,” something that should have easily identified him and denied him the ability to fly on a commercial airliner, we face this new year knowing that there will be yet new challenges to be faced, and new counter measures to be developed.
Our ultimate goal is that we can finally stop being lucky in such matters and start being good.