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After the Christmas Day bomb plot: where now for counter-terrorism?

H A Hellyer
Commentary, 8 January 2010
International Security Studies, Terrorism, The Gulf Region, Domestic Security, Law and Ethics, Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
The failure of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner over the US has also highlighted failures in our counter-terrorism strategies and analysis, which must now be addressed.

Had a bombing actually taken place, the would-be Christmas Day bomber may have left a great deal of confusion and chaos in his wake. Unlike previous terror plots, this latest attempt could well have far reaching implications for years to come, with President Obama already chastising the US intelligence community for its part in failing to detect the attack, and with Yemen being talked up as the next region of focus for counter-terrorism specialists.

In Britain, the repercussions will also be felt as we once again question the effectiveness of domestic counter-terrorism strategies, raising fresh concerns with regards to civil liberties in higher education.

Campus Radicalisation

Since the attacks, there has already been heated debate about the threat emanating from the university campus after it quickly emerged that the Nigerian suspect was a student at University College London (UCL). UCL has already publicly responded, insisting that it will have an independent review looking into all aspects of Abdulmutallab's life at the college; moreover Universities UK, the umbrella body of university vice-chancellors will set up a working group to look at the wider issue of extremism on campuses.

It is not likely, however, that fresh new insights will be derived from either investigation. Universities are not security establishments - they are centres of learning, and their main purpose is to stimulate free and open debate in order to give their students the opportunity to broaden their horizons. However, freedom can be a double-edged sword,  entailing the toleration of odious views, and we may well run the risk of producing extremists as a result - Cambridge produced a certain Nick Griffin, after all. However, if UCL turns out to have produced a would-be bomber, that's likely to have been in spite of UCL's policies, not because of them.

Abdulmutallab was not just any student, beyond the gaze of the authorities - he was an active member of its Student Union, and president of its Muslim student society (commonly referred to as 'Islamic Societies/I-Socs'). This is where the discussion is likely to get much tenser, with strident calls to apply restrictions to Muslim student societies and thereby avoid problems in the future. Yet, it is still unclear what role, if any, Abdulmutallab's student activities had on his alleged formation as a terrorist. What we do know is that at UCL, according to reports, he openly condemned terrorism, and the national representative organisation for Muslim students (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies - FOSIS), has confirmed that any radicalisation that Abdulmutallab might have undergone was invisible during his tenure at UCL. That probably will not satisfy everyone. But on the facts that have come to light so far, it is not likely that any further controls on Muslim students (who have already been carefully watched since the 7 July bombings) - are likely to be beneficial. It could even cause trust between the authorities and Muslim student populations to deteriorate, in the same way that Prevent (the government's counter-radicalisation programme) has been accused of adversely affected sections of Muslim British society as a whole.

Profiling, Scanning, and Securing Community Co-Operation

Nationally, there is a strong possibility for there to be much tighter security controls at British airports - with prospects for profiling high on the agenda. If the profiling is based on a passenger's race or religion, that would be unfortunate - such provisions have never worked, and it would simply cause Al-Qa'ida-type groups to increase their use of 'clean-skins'; perhaps via converts to the faith or women who cannot be identified through profiling. They have already used such people in the past, adapting to the unofficial profiling that already exists. On the other hand, selective profiling based on proper intelligence-gathering, may be rather different and could have prevented the Christmas Day suspect, whose name had been known to the intelligence services, who had dropped off the map for months, and whom his own father had reported to the US authorities.

The overall effect on civil liberties is unpredictable - already it has been confirmed that we will have body scanners in operation in Heathrow, with a view to rolling them out elsewhere. As the British civil liberties watchdog Liberty, warns: 'Where are the governmental assurances that electronic strip-searching is to be used in a lawful, proportionate and sensitive manner?' Both the Government and the Opposition need to be able to answer that question in a very comprehensive manner. It is important to note that in other European countries, such body scanners have been considered in recent months and years, but were rejected after failing to satisfy concerns about privacy. Would the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? This is not a moot question - there is already much anxiety as newspaper reports suggest that some members of the community have had pressure placed on them to be unwilling spies. Reports indicate that in spite of that, communities have given valuable tip-offs, stopping terrorist plots from taking place - we do not want to jeopardise that.

Yemen: a new frontier?

Since 7/7, our counter-terrorism discourse has been anchored to Pakistan, with details emerging of links between UK violent extremists and that country, particularly since there is a large British Pakistani population. Now that it is known that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was possibly radicalised in Yemen, the Arabian peninsular country will join Pakistan and Somalia as another space from which terrorists draw their strength. Discussion will naturally focus on the interpretation of Islam in Yemen and whether its theological landscape is conducive to extremists.

This will get rather complicated, however. Historically, Yemen, particularly the Hadramawt valley, has been at the centre of a very sophisticated and anti-anarchical mode of Islamic thought, relying on mainstream Islamic theology, law and spirituality. The results have blossomed into more nuanced and mainstream readings, albeit from a conservative perspective, with a following currently spanning the United States, Europe, East Africa and through to East Asia. Yemen achieved this without state interference or involvement - peaceful preachers have independently and without state patronage encouraged their flock to work within civil society to battle society's ills, marginalise extremes, and encourage indigenous notions of Islamic expression.

Thus, in the UK, authorities have encouraged Yemeni-trained preachers to visit (through the Radical Middle Way initiative), and Muslim communities have been sending their sons and daughters to the Hadhramawt valley for decades now to learn from their example. They come back as vibrant functionaries, often with few if any resources. The effects of their work are yet to be calculated, but it is likely that without their input, the problem of violent extremism we face would be far more pronounced.

To be sure, the positive influence of this Islamic tendency is not always apparent in a Yemen ravaged by conflict. Extremists do certainly operate. But that is more to do with Yemen's fragmented insurgencies and ungoverned spaces, which foreign extremists exploit to find safe haven. Yet, the predominant modes of religious interpretation are not conducive to a large-scale 'Takfiri' type movement, which Al-Qa'ida-style operatives could draw recruits from.

Prospects for counter-terrorism strategy

As the Government admitted on 5 January, in the long run, there may be little or no measure that will 100 per cent protect us from inventive and determined terrorists. However, there are standards to hold on to - it is too early to be certain, but the Christmas Day attempt might very well have been avoided if those standards had been properly implemented. This has been emphasised with President Obama openly criticising the US intelligence community for their failure to identify Abdulmuttallab earlier. But the point about standards will resonate in other ways as well.

At home, we will see a renewed discussion about the place of Muslim communities in counter-terrorism strategies, and how these tie in with higher education in particular. That comes at a time when national counter-radicalisation strategies (Prevent in particular) are under review, after severe criticism with regards to its effectiveness. We need to be careful about inviting similar criticism in higher education - the last thing we would want is for trust to break down between university authorities, or the police, and the student. In this case, students might have had nothing to offer by way of useful intelligence - but that might not be the case in the future. Any initiative, therefore, that improves the relationship on the ground between the authorities and civil society should be encouraged: such initiatives are vital in frustrating an international cohort of extremists with online tools at their disposal. The key point here is to actively involve - in a non-confrontational way - the Muslim student community, together with mainstream Muslim civil society, to help them identify suspicious behaviour while assuring their independence as free and equal British citizens.

Profiling on the basis of race or religion is not only ineffectual - it is counter-productive. The increased use of new technology, like body-scanners, might be beneficial, but the suspicion is that it is mere window dressing, and more of a symbolic (and expensive) reaction than anything else. Smart intelligence goes beyond this - and in this regard, 'behavioural' profiling, based on common sense, is not an option that necessarily conflicts with our country's traditions of civil liberties. Security experts, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, as well as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, have pointed out the lack of benefits in profiling on the basis of characteristics - but they have reiterated that transport officials need to be further trained in how to analyse the behaviour and the past history of passengers. As Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, notes: 'effective profiling is based on the analysis of the appearance and behaviour of a passenger and an inspection of the traveller's itinerary and passport; it does not and should not be based on race, religion, nationality or colour of skin.'

On the other hand, increasing haphazard, and what some would regard as nonsensical measures, such as forbidding passengers to stand, cover themselves with blankets or interact with their luggage during the last hour of their flights, all as a result of this current episode, will not increase our security. At best, such rules merely further disrupt our lives, giving the terrorists more reason to feel victorious.

Finally, with regards to Yemen, it is important to understand the country before resorting to hasty reactions. The Yemeni authorities take seriously the threat that faces them, and they have been very clear and open about where they stand. We need to increase co-operation with those authorities, and improve their capacity to the job they know how to do best - not turn them, and the local population, against us.

There are, as always, no 'short-cuts' in counter-terrorism, whether in 2010 or at any other time - but as we engage in the soul-searching that needs to be done, we should also remember that terrorists did, in fact, lose this time. And hopefully, we will learn from what the Nigerian suspect reveals to the FBI, as well as from our own mistakes.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, Fellow of the University of Warwick, is author of 'Muslims of Europe: the "Other" Europeans' (Edinburg University Press), and was appointed Deputy Convenor of the Home Office working group on 'Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism' in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings.


H A Hellyer
Senior Associate Fellow

A scholar and author focusing on politics, international studies, and religion, in the West and the Arab world,... read more

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