Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow himself up on Northwest Airlines 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day has generated a stupendous amount of column inches and airtime in the US and British media. While the saturation-level coverage has focused on questions of "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how," it has categorically failed to ask the most important question of all – why?
Those hoping that the new messiah of the United States would enlighten the ignorant masses were sorely disappointed when the Democratic president could only offer to "communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that … the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress." Barack Obama then turned the floor over to his top counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, who made the blindingly obvious and technically true statement that "al-Qaida is an organisation that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents."
As with much of Obama’s foreign policy, his inability or unwillingness to articulate why the US is the target of so much terrorism has more in common with his universally reviled predecessor than many of his supporters would like to admit. Of course Bush was always far more crass and simplistic than the smooth Harvard graduate. "America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world," the then commander-in-chief told the US on September 11 2001.
Just in case anyone is turning their noses up at "those stupid Americans," we shouldn’t forget that immediately after the July 7 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the BBC reported then home secretary Charles Clarke as saying that "those responsible for such attacks simply wanted to destroy democracy."
In contrast Michael Scheuer, the man who headed the CIA unit monitoring Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, argues Islamic terrorist attacks on the US have nothing "to do with our freedom, liberty and democracy, but everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world."
So who should we believe? To begin to answer this question, it seems pertinent to look at the reasons those actually carrying out the terrorism give for their actions.
Although it has since disappeared down the memory hole, in 2004 bin Laden himself directly addressed Bush’s claim that al-Qaida is motivated by a hatred of US freedom and democracy. "Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden," the al-Qaida figurehead quipped before stating: "We fought you because we are free and do not accept injustice. We want to restore freedom to our nation."
What about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind September 11 2001 and the man with the dubious honour of holding the world record for the number of times to undergo waterboarding – 183 times according to the US Justice Department. "By his own account KSM’s [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with US foreign policy favouring Israel," noted the official 9/11 Commission report.
Back to Britain. Last September, the International Herald Tribune reported that the jury at the trial of the 2006 plot to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners were shown martyrdom videos prepared by several of the plotters. "A common theme was that they planned to wreak revenge on Britain and the United States for their interference in Muslim countries, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," reported the newspaper.
No doubt some readers will be uncomfortable with taking mass-murdering terrorists at their word. But what about testimony from the US government itself?
In 2004 the Pentagon-appointed US Defence Science Board explained: "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies." The board elaborated: "The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states."
As someone paralysed in a 2004 attack by Saudi extremists, one presumes BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner has thought a little bit about this topic. In 2005 he told the Commons foreign affairs committee that "al-Qaida could not give a stuff about what Americans do in America. What they object to is Western military adventures in their heartland, whether it be Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever."
Robert A Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, has written a whole book addressing this question. He concludes that "suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than the product of Islamic fundamentalism."
Returning to the case of Abdulmutallab, a recent Associated Press story noted he was "not overtly extremist," however he "was open about his sympathies toward the Palestinians and his anger over Israel’s actions in Gaza." In addition Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula released a video after the attempted attack stating that it was in revenge for two joint US-Yemeni air raids on December 17, supposedly targeting al-Qaida operatives. Yes that’s right, the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize personally ordered US air strikes in Yemen, killing 23 children and 17 women, according to local officials.
The enigmatic US novelist Thomas Pynchon once wrote: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers."
So far the "wrong questions" asked by politicians and the mainstream media have led to the implementation of "the most significant changes to airport security since 2006," according to the Guardian. "Increased pat-down searches, more sniffer dogs in terminals and a step-up in hand luggage inspections" along with "the introduction of body scanners" has been the British government’s knee-jerk response to Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack.
The problem is that these are technical answers to something that desperately requires a political solution. In fact, by ignoring the inconvenient question of "why," the chances are that we are actually making future terrorist attacks on the US and Britain more likely.
This is not to suggest that British foreign policy should be decided by the actions of a small group of murderous Islamic extremists. Rather it should radically change because it is immoral, hypocritical and has directly caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, many of them in the Islamic world. Put simply, reversing US and British backing for Israel, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and ending our Machiavellian support for undemocratic Arab regimes is the right and moral thing to do. A welcome by-product of implementing these sane and humane policies would be a decrease in the hatred directed against the US and British in the Islamic world – and therefore a significantly reduced terrorist threat.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].