How to Stop the Next Detroit Bomber

In response to the would-be Detroit bomber, Yemen wants more helicopters to counter terrorism. But there is no indication helicopters would have stopped him or that, over the long run, they will put an end to the activities of al-Qaeda enthusiasts. Counterterrorism efforts need to take hearts, minds, and wills seriously.

On December 25th, 2009 reports began to emerge about an attempt to explode Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit. The accused perpetrator was identified as Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Then came news of Abdulmutallab’s connection to Yemen. And now the Yemenis are trying to leverage this to obtain additional “counterterrorism” aid from the West.

In response to the news that Abdulmutallab’s trail to Detroit seems to have gone through Yemen, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi acknowledged the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen and has already used this incident to try to secure more financial assistance for his country. Discussing counter-terrorism aid so far, Al-Qirbi complained, “I must say it is inadequate.” He went on to say, “We need more training, we have to expand our counter-terrorism units and provide them with equipment and transportation like helicopters.”

There is a striking disconnect between the information coming out about the young Nigerian terrorism suspect in custody now, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the nature of the Yemeni request. This disconnect also highlights a gaping hole in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

Information currently available about Abdulmutallab paints a picture of a young college student in London who adopted and sought to act on extremist ideas. While there is a role for military hardware in tracking down and eliminating violent extremists, it is unclear how adding helicopters in Yemen, or London for that matter, would stem the stream of young radicalized Muslims coming out of London and other areas.

Helicopters may intimidate, but they do not change hearts, minds, or wills at the deep level necessary for transformative change. Instead, a more pressing need in counterterrorism assistance is a focus on causative factors of the problem combined with long-term perseverance to counter these causative factors at the root level. Our cooperation with countries such as Yemen must be primarily at this root level.

No quantity of helicopters would be sufficient to stem the zeal of all the al-Qaeda enthusiasts in the world who have become starry-eyed in their obsession with al-Qaeda’s cosmic narratives of utopian global domination.

For those wondering how someone with the tremendous privilege of studying in London would abandon such an opportunity to pursue the goals of Islamist extremists, I recommend Ed Husain’s autobiographical account of his experience in London as a young Muslim. In The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, Husain details his radicalization, Islamist activism, and the eventual opening of his heart and mind. He walks the reader through his youth in London and into the seductiveness of the Islamists’ claim to have solutions to all the problems of being a teenager, and of the world too.

Husain’s differentiation of various strands of Islamism, including accounts of infighting between various Islamist groups, is an important aspect of his book. He combines this with reflections on his own individual process of questioning, doubting, and ultimately turning away from the black-and-white, bellicose worldview of the Islamists. His account is a stark reminder that the Islamist movements are manifold, not a monolith, at both a macro and a micro level.

In this complexity lies opportunity, for in this complexity there are cracks and openings. In these cracks and openings are opportunities to begin turning hardened individuals away from radicalism, and to deter would-be adherents of these violent ideologies.

Granted, engaging this complex realm will not be easy. Our counterterrorism programs need to focus more on the view of the world as it appears looking out through the eyes of individuals such as Abdulmutallab and relatively less on the view of the ground from the air in far-off helicopters. There is a role for helicopters, but it is an ancillary role. The core of our approach must engage hearts, minds, and wills.

Opportunities to do so abound, if we seize them. For example, reach out to key audiences and teach critical thinking, so that youth can penetrate the simplistic narratives of extremists with questions. Place role models in the paths of youth—role models who can handle ambiguity and deal with disappointments. These role models don’t have to all be real people—characters in movies and other media attractive to the target audiences can contribute to this. Stop turning a blind eye to the censorship of progressive Muslim thinkers by dictators we support such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Media by progressive Muslims abound, but often languish in obscurity due to censorship and lack of access to major media markets. One way to help these already existing media get broader circulation and multiply their audiences is through translations.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a high-level meeting in London January 28 to discuss measures to counter radicalization in Yemen. This sounds good, though it is unclear what mechanisms exist to implement the long-range follow up which would be necessary for a substantive, astutely designed counter-radicalization effort in Yemen.

As for President Obama, he has not shown signs of taking ideological drivers of terrorism seriously. Who in the U.S. government is in charge of countering ideological support to terrorism? Having a smattering of offices interested in the topic scattered across lots of departments and agencies in the U.S. government is insufficient. President Obama needs to identify countering ideological support to terrorism as a top priority and assign this priority leadership, long-term commitment of resources, and authority to act.

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