The $30bn pair of underpants


Almost immediately after it was learned that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a US airliner using explosives concealed in his underpants, received training in Yemen, US politicians called for Barack Obama, the US president, to expand the ‘war on terror’ – which remains very much a war despite the administration’s official ban of such vocabulary – to that country.

The president obliged, declaring that the US would strike anywhere to prevent another attack.

Such calls were in fact unnecessary, as the US is already involved in Yemen, supervising attacks on militants that have been credited by analysts with helping to further inflame anti-Americanism and support for al-Qaeda in the country.

Indeed, far from heralding a more successful US effort to stamp out Islamist terrorism, the soon to be deepening footprint in Yemen is a sure sign of America’s defeat in the war against violent extremism in the Muslim world.

‘Boots on the ground’

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars – new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the ‘war on terror’ full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda’s wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.

The European connection

As with the 9/11 attacks, Europe figures prominently in the current attacks. Then it was Germany, this time it was London, where Abdulmutallab studied and apparently began his descent into extremism.

Europe’s role is not surprising, and in the case of London, particularly apt.

After centuries as a primary purchaser and transporter of slaves to the Americas from west equatorial Africa, the British used the abolishment of the slave trade to interfere ever more into the economy of the Niger Delta until it assumed increasing colonial control in the mid third of the 19th century, creating the modern state of Nigeria as part of the process (the British gained control of Aden and surrounding areas of Yemen around the same time).

The rampant poverty, corruption and violence that today plague Nigeria are an inheritance of British rule, which itself was built up on centuries of slave raiding and trading – among the most corrupt and violent of activities – by the indigenous elites of the region with Europe, a devil’s bargain that haunts this part of the world to the present day.

Should the US be invading London for providing material support to terrorism?

It took decades after the end of the British empire for the impact of British colonialism in South Asia and Africa to blow back onto British soil. The US has not even finished her imperial moment and it has already arrived.

The US will now become ever more deeply involved across the arc of instability beginning in Nigeria and stretching across Africa, the Middle East and into Central Asia.

In the process, it will deepen the mistakes that have made attacks such as the one attempted by Abdulmutallab inevitable.

Poverty and oppression

This is clear from the New York Times’ New Year’s eve editorial about Yemen, which warned of the importance of "heading off full chaos" in the country.

"Yemen’s government is corrupt and repressive," the paper intoned. "But President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to want to cooperate."

The world’s paper of record is utterly clueless as to the intimate link between the corruption and oppression of the Yemeni government and its willingness to "cooperate" with the US, and the roots of radicalism in Yemen.

The New York Times, along with the rest of the mainstream media, have also ignored the role growing up so privileged in a country such as Nigeria had on Abdulmutallab, who likely saw the "moderation" (in Western eyes) of his wealthy banker father as a sign of his participation in a system that violated the most basic ethical premises of his religion and helped support poverty and oppression at home and across the Muslim world.

If the mainstream press, and with it no doubt the Obama administration, are unwilling to recognise the inextricable ties between oppression, poverty, corruption and violence by governments like Nigeria and Yemen, and the rise of religiously grounded extremism and violence there, then its increasing foot- or boot-print there will strengthen rather than weaken al-Qaeda and similar movements.

Strategy of shame

As I stood in the security line at JFK airport waiting to be frisked before boarding a New Year’s day flight home, another goal, or at least consequence, of the most recent attack became apparent, one deeply tied to the obsession with physical and sexual honour in radical Islamist ideology: With this one failed action, the movement will succeed in routinising the systematic physical violation of airline travellers by our own security personnel as a part of the price of air travel.

Invasive frisking of the most intimate areas of the human body and revealing full body scans represent from a hardcore Salafi perspective an almost unbearable indignity -one they will surely relish seeing millions of the enemy routinely suffer, especially when such violations mirror the daily indignities and sexual humiliation infamously suffered by inmates in Guantanamo and other US-run prisons.

Call it a politics or strategy of shame – another weapon in the al-Qaeda arsenal that the West will have a hard time finding an answer for and which will erode support for the ‘war on terror’ from within even as Western governments strengthen their ties to oppressive front line states.

Osama bin Laden could not have planned it better if he tried.

Mark LeVine is currently visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His books include Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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