How did Pantsman conquer the world?
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s promotion from loser to enemy of civilisation suggests the politics of fear is a bigger threat than bitter individuals.
Overnight, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has turned from a complete loser – a friendless student who blogged about masturbation and supported Liverpool – into a threat to civilisation. How? It was not by dint of his own powers; rather he was handed his new position as mortal enemy of the West on a silver platter by panicky and visionless leaders in London and Washington. The transformation of Abdulmutallab from a loner who posed a threat mainly to his own eyesight into a warrior who poses a threat to life as we know it confirms that the impact of terrorism on society is determined not by the terrorist himself, but by the way we choose to react to his threat.
Prior to his alleged failed attempt to set off a bomb hidden in his pants on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day – when he allegedly used chemicals in a syringe to try to ignite 80 grams of PETN explosives – Abdulmutallab was what we Brits call a ‘saddo’. Described as ‘lonely and conflicted’, he’s the son of a rich Nigerian banker who was studying at University College London (UCL). He couldn’t get a girlfriend so he befriended Onan instead, writing online about committing ‘minor sinful activities’ on himself. He sought Islamic advice on whether it is acceptable to attend a prom (I hope some imam responded: ‘You need to get a date first’). Photographs show him looking like an utter misery guts outside the Houses of Parliament and other London landmarks (1).
Desperate to escape the reality of his pampered-and-pointless life, Abdulmutallab became a fantasist. Literally. He wrote about his ‘jihad fantasies’, saying ‘my fantasy [is that] the great jihad will take place and the Muslims will win (Allah willing)’. He attended lectures by radical Islamic preachers at UCL and started to write on the web both about Liverpool’s fortunes (‘Gerrard might regret leaving Liverpool, but somehow I want him to leave’) and setting up a global Islamic caliphate. He went to Yemen where he was allegedly trained and armed by a group linked with al-Qaeda, and then he boarded that fateful – but thankfully not fatal – flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
As far as threats to Western civilisation go, he is hardly an Adolf Hitler, or even much of a Mohammad Atta. The evidence so far suggests that while Abdulmutallab might have hooked up with some Yemeni grouping as part of his search for overnight terror celebrity, he was to all intents and purposes a loner, a slightly warped young man who was not the sharpest nail in the nail-bomb. And yet both London and Washington have responded to his actions rashly and ridiculously, by further securitising society, eroding liberty, clamping down in airports, overhauling international relations, and upping the ante with Yemen.
UK PM Gordon Brown has given the go-ahead for the installation of full-body scanners at Heathrow and other airports, which will enable the authorities to peer at our naked bodies to see if we are concealing explosives. (One security expert says this doesn’t go far enough. What about terrorists who hide weapons inside their bodies? Maybe every passenger should be subjected to the custom officer’s erect digit.) President Barack Obama has introduced tougher screening rules for air passengers arriving in the US from 14 countries, including Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Sudan. Brown and Obama plan to hold an international conference to discuss the ‘problem’ of Yemen, with many already hotly discussing whether the West should enforce sanctions, invade, or simply help the Yemeni authorities launch a war on al-Qaeda (that is, foster civil conflict).
The failed actions of one preposterous individual have led to policies that will impact on millions of people’s lives. The jihad fantasies of a wanker from UCL have led to the instantaneous institutionalisation of illiberal, privacy-obliterating measures and to dangerous war talk about one of the poorest, divided countries in the Arab world. This demonstrates what makes terrorism a powerful force today. It is not the belief systems of the alleged terrorists themselves (which are weird and wacky) or the power of the terrorists to inflict harm on individuals (which is real, but extremely limited); rather it is the fragility of contemporary society, the often-advertised vulnerability and deep feeling of insecurity of communities across the West, which gives terrorism its purchase and momentum. The impact of terrorism is inherently dependent on the institutional and moral coherence of its target society – and today our disorientated societies react to terrorism in a way that, in the words of one author, ‘amplifies the impact’ of acts of terror (2).
Abdulmutallab is not the first SMM (Single Male Muslim) who has been allowed to shake up the daily lives and liberties of millions. At airports around the world, everyone from 90-year-old grandmothers to six-year-old girls now has to remove their shoes as they go through boarding, courtesy of failed shoe bomber and learning-difficulties sufferer Richard Reid. We’re also forbidden from carrying liquids on flights (unless we buy them in duty free) because of the failed actions of a group of wannabe bombers from east London. A handful of losers with warped fantasies has been allowed to have a severe and backward transformative impact on global travel, freedom of movement and society.
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Their power came not from their ideas or plans or weapons, but from the supine response to their threat by the powers-that-be. Historically, one of the key distinctive features of political violence is that it often tries to have a psychological impact more than a physical one. Unable to effect real and meaningful political change by force of arms, isolated terrorist groups instead seek to undermine society’s sense of security, using destructive attacks as a means of striking fear and disorientation into the target society. This means that the impact of terrorism is determined not only by the terrorists’ acts themselves, but by the propensity to fear within the target society, by society’s ability, or inability, to withstand occasional explosive acts carried out by disgruntled individuals.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky made this point many years ago. In his essay ‘Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism’, Trotsky, distinguishing between purposeful political violence and the incoherent terrorist actions of anarchists, syndicalists and nihilists, argued that acts of terror in themselves are ‘absolutely harmless as far as the social system goes’. They can, however, have a disorientating impact on the social order if society is morally frail and susceptible to disarray. ‘Whether a terrorist attempt… throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances’, he argued (3).
And so it is today, where terrorism can change society and our lives not because it is strong or widespread or ideologically coherent, but because of a culture of fear in Western societies that both advertises Western vulnerability to aspiring terrorists and also guarantees terrorists a huge social payoff – political handwringing, illiberal clampdowns, tense international stand-offs – in return for relatively minor acts of violence.
Indeed, the pants attack and its aftermath reveals what al-Qaeda really represents today: fundamentally, it is not an external ideological threat to Western values, but rather is the physical manifestation of Western societies’ own incoherence. Both the political origins of al-Qaeda-style violence and its impact on society are to be found, not in some hovel of a training camp in poverty-stricken Yemen, but in towns and cities in the West. ‘Al-Qaeda’ – not the largely mythical political grouping that is supposedly headed and run by Osama bin Laden, but rather the free-floating sense of haughty angst and disgust with modern society – is a Western not a Yemeni thing.
Many have expressed shock that Abdulmutallab comes from a well-off background and was largely ‘Westernised’ (4). Yet many studies have found that this is the al-Qaeda archetype. International Islamic terrorists, as opposed to myopically local groups like the Taliban, tend to be from fairly middle-class backgrounds, to have attended university, to have travelled (particularly in the West), and they’re very rarely poor or traditional religious fanatics (5). Many, including the organisers of 9/11, were radicalised in the West itself; not in their rather traditionalist hometowns in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but in those hotbeds of identity and victim politics: Hamburg, London, Madrid, Paris. Many of these young men are really possessed of a profound and narcissistic sense of victimhood, of alienation, of arrogant disdain for mass, mainstream society, and radical Islam often provides little more than a perfect, off-the-peg justification for these very modern feelings. They carry out, not meaningful political violence, but terror tantrums.
So there is little surprising about Abdulmutallab. He, too, comes from a wealthy background and appears to have been radicalised in the West. He, too, seems to be possessed of a powerful sense of woe-is-me self- and Muslim-pity. However, those arguing that Abdulmutallab’s story shows the need to censor and extinguish radical Islamic societies in British universities such as UCL are missing the point. There is clearly something more fundamental missing in mainstream Western society when radical cranks can allegedly tempt and tantalise young Brits or young foreigners, and addressing that lack – through fully free and open debate – will be far more fruitful than pretending terrorism is all the fault of ‘evil words’.
Individuals in Yemen blame Abdulmutallab’s failure on a ‘faulty detonator’. Yet even this non-explosion managed to detonate deeply in Western society, with the CIA releasing photos of Abdulmutallab’s pants as symbols of evil and everyone from Obama downwards giving serious and stern speeches. The political response to Pantsman is worse than useless – it is disturbingly illiberal and dangerous. Looking through everyone’s clothes in airports is no substitute for a discrete, intelligence-based policing of properly dangerous individuals. And demonising Yemen is a displacement activity of historic proportions. Furthermore, advertising Western vulnerability through such rash actions will do nothing to discourage some other fantasist from trying to get his 15 minutes of infamy by putting a bomb in his Y-fronts. In 2010, spiked plans to launch a war of words on the things that cause and bolster terrorism today – no, not Yemen, or even al-Qaeda, but the politics of fear, cult of victimhood, kneejerk government, and a culture that is utterly incapable of valuing liberty.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) I get lonely… I imagine a day Muslims rule the whole world, Sun, 30 December 2009
(2) Quoted in Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill
(3) Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism, Leon Trotsky, 1911
(4) Wealthy, quiet, unassuming: the Christmas Day bomb suspect, Independent, 27 December 2009
(5) See Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill