You don’t need me to tell you that the Christmas terror attack deserves to be treated with the utmost seriousness. On all things relating to Al Qaeda, I always turn to Steve Coll, my New America colleague, for level-headed analysis. What I find most disturbing is that Abdulfarouk Umar Mutallab is most likely one of many affluent radicals bent on killing American civilians. Coll writes:
Abdulmutallab appears cut from the now-familiar cloth of transnational Islamic violence: As the analyst Marc Sageman once formulated it, the biography is one of dislocation and radicalization that often seems to involve a young man who is raised in country A, becomes radicalized in country B, and then decides to attack country C, with “C” often (but not always) being the United States. Here we also have the elements of economic privilege and globe-crossing travel familiar from the biographies of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s two senior leaders, who by now have reached that state of advanced middle-age in which they can no longer be expected to remember their period of teenage radicalization and early violence very accurately.
Even more egregiously, Coll cites a report co-authored by Julie Tate that pored over Abdulmutallab’s increasingly posts on the web:
If two reporters—admittedly exceptionally skilled, at the top of their professions—can so quickly excavate open musings and Abdulmutallab’s travel itineraries to Yemen and London, it does make you wonder exactly what happened inside the Abuja embassy and the wider intelligence bureaucracy after Abdulmutallab’s father called to report his anxieties about his missing son. After all, how often does a prestigious Nigerian banker voluntarily telephone an American embassy to express anxiety about a son’s religious and political leanings? Is there at least a standard protocol in such cases to check the subject’s Facebook profile?
My sense is that our intelligence analysts have indeed used the web as an effective tool. In a sense, web-based extremism is a gift to counter-terrorism: it allows some “internet jihadists” to blow off steam. Yet it’s very hard to differentiate between those who need to be taken seriously and those who are engaging in a chest-beating exercise. I do think that Coll is dead on: if this kid’s father went to an American embassy to report his concerns, he was taking an extraordinary step that merited more than just a cursory follow-up.