A pants response to the terrorism threat

Gordon Brown’s stringent security measures in response to one failed bombing show the madness of the ‘war on terror’.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

The suspension of direct flights between Yemen and the UK… A new ‘no fly’ list to stop terrorism suspects from coming to Britain… An extension of pre-flight checks on all passengers travelling to Britain, including enhanced screening with full body airport scanners for any passenger, whether they are in transit or whether the UK is their final destination… The sharing of individuals’ personal information between international agencies….

These are some of the new measures introduced by UK prime minister Gordon Brown this week in response to the failed Christmas Day bomb plot by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Also known as ‘the underpants bomber’, Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to set off explosives hidden in his under garments on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, Yemeni officials have announced that they will stop granting entry visas at the country’s international airports in order to halt the ‘infiltration of terrorist elements’. And in the US, 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.

Next week, the UK will host a meeting to discuss what to do about Yemen. In Gordon Brown’s words the purpose is to ‘strengthen international support for Yemen in its efforts against al-Qaeda; to help the government of Yemen advance its internal reforms; and to increase capacity-building and development assistance in a way that directly addresses poverty and grievances which can fuel insecurity and extremism’. In clearspeak, the ‘special meeting’ will be a platform from which to launch potential international intervention in one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and to work out ways of forcing Yemen to comply with the amorphous aims of the ‘war on terror’.

How can the smoking underwear of one seemingly twisted individual provoke the suspension of international flights, clampdowns on the privacy and freedom of movement of millions, and turn international air travel into an even more arduous affair for travellers from around the world?

Of course, the gravity of Abdulmutallab’s bomb plot, which, if successful, would have been bloody and devastating, should not be underestimated. Yet the futility, and the disproportionality, of the response is more than evident. Expanded airport security measures, for example, can still not guarantee full security. Air travellers are already required to answer inane security questions at check-in, remove their shoes when going through scanners and limit the amount of liquid carried in their hand luggage (measures taken after other failed bomb plots). But Abdulmutallab’s instructors appear to have found a way for him to get around those already existing checks, and the new, full-body x-ray scanners have also been proven to be inadequate in spotting all types of explosives. The new security measures will do little to guarantee complete safety (there is no such thing anyway) but they will guarantee that getting on a plane becomes an even slower, inconvenient process for all, and will require all of us to submit our personal details and bodies to the scrutiny of international officials.

In fact, the only way to prevent would-be bombers from boarding planes would be to stop us all from flying altogether. And in this respect, Abdulmutallab’s pantsy explosives must have been a wet dream for the UK Home Office (or perhaps the UK Go Home Office?), which is seemingly working overtime to ensure that crossing Britain’s borders becomes a privilege afforded only to a minority of the global population. (As evidenced by the severe restrictions on temporary and permanent settlement by citizens from non-EU member countries introduced under the Points Based System.)

Any excuse to restrict visa issuing is leapt upon, and if it can be done in the name of ‘enhancing national security’ and honouring the work of ‘our boys in Afghanistan’, so much the better. Brown’s statement on security and counter-terrorism in the House of Commons yesterday, in which he outlined the new security measures, was interspersed with references and tributes to British security services and to members of the armed forces who have ‘given their lives in the service of the security of our country in Afghanistan’.

But while ever more creative ways of restricting immigration and free movement are devised by the New Labour government, there is no cabal of freedom-hating, racist Home Office officials, or bloodthirsty neo-imperialist warmongerers, plotting to keep foreigners out. Instead the heavy-handed response to the underwear bomber – and to other successful and failed terror plots before him – is an expression of insecurity and incoherence. It is evidence of Western leaders’ inability to identify and target real threats and to deal with them through discrete policies and measures, and of their abandonment of the ideals of liberty and openness.

While Obama and Brown, like their predecessors, harp on about continuing the ‘war on terror’ in the name of upholding security and Western ideals of liberty, it is, in fact, freedom that they fear. And that’s why, even if the underpants bomber didn’t exist, they would have to invent him.

And in a way, they have. Because Abdulmutallab, while he certainly posed a very real threat to his fellow passengers, was never the threat to civilisation that he has been made out to be over the past couple of weeks. The son of a rich Nigerian banker who studied at University College London, Abdulmutallab developed an unhealthy interest in radical Islamic preachers and went off to Yemen where he allegedly got some training in how to blow up planes (clearly he wasn’t attentive in class). But this was no scheming ideologue. Abdulmutallab is a loner, a loser, a twisted rich kid with backward ideas.

Any disillusioned youngster in search for some purpose in life can, with enough determination, acquire the knowledge to construct an explosive. While groups in Muslim countries sometimes provide the training and knowhow for keen nihilists, the motivation to undertake such suicide missions cannot be so readily traced to the slums, deserts or kasbahs of the Arab world; often the motivation is Western in origin.

Like his predecessors, including the east Londoners whose transatlantic aircraft plot was averted at Heathrow in 2006 and the unfortunately successful 7/7 bombers, Abdulmutallab did not have a poverty-stricken Third World upbringing. Because these people’s motivations – a disgust with modernity and the West – are too close to home for comfort, it is easier for our leaders to view them as an alien, external force and to lash out at any country which they can be linked to, no matter how far-fetched the connection. All of which means that Brown’s new measures are not only illiberal and potentially internationally destabilising – they are also an extraordinary displacement activity.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild said x-ray airport scanners are a naked assault on our right to privacy. Frank Furedi talked to Brendan O’Neill about his book, Invitation to Terror. Faisal Devji said Osama bin Laden merely speaks through Western dummies. Dolan Cummings argued that radicalisation is a good thing. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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