Our fear of terrorism has once again caught up with us. It takes only one radical, who carries out his meticulous plans with deadly determination, to blow up the carefully constructed structure of secret intelligence and security measures.
It is interesting to note the immediate reactions to the newest attempt to attack a passenger plane en route to Detroit. They include strict security measures from full-body x-rays to the expansion of the flight ban for those on the terror watch list. But: we all know that our security is not guaranteed, nor are the terror experts trying to reassure us. The images from a US training video that depict how the amount of powder Umar Abdulmutallab had hidden in his underclothes could blow up a Boeing in a matter of seconds will haunt us for a long time to come. At the very latest, they will reappear during our next overseas flight.
If current defense strategies against terrorism do not convince us, they will not intimidate the terrorists and certainly won’t prevent them from acting. The long-term perspective on counter-terror measures is missing. The assassins and the violence-prone extremists are always one step ahead - in the form of a deadly attack. Umar’s case is unique in that his own father, a member of the Nigerian elite, was so deeply disturbed by his son’s radicalization that he took the desperate step of alerting the US embassy in Nigeria to his behavior.
Umar had gone into hiding in Yemen and broke off all contact with his family. There were early warning signals. In early 2005, Umar wrote on the Islamic Forum’s website: “ I have no friend. Not because I do not socialise, etc but because either people do not want to get too close to me as they go partying and stuff while I don’t…As I get lonely, the natural sexual drive awakens and I struggle to control it, sometimes leading to minor sinful activities like not lowering the gaze [from women].” On February 5, 2005, he added the following note: “… I have never found a true Muslim friend. I might sound boring, but if you want to know more about me, just give me shout.”
Umar is one of the many young, restless Muslims who politicize their religion and misuse it as a weapon. The ideology of extremism will not falter when confronted with intense scrutiny. They arm themselves in another way. Resignation and anger in the hearts and minds of the adolescents must be recognized in time and taken seriously.
The parents must thus be sensitized, for they are the first to recognize that their children’s lives are careening off course. Mothers and fathers are ideally positioned as “early warning signals.” Preventative measures must be put in place where the youth are raised—in families and in schools. An admittedly long-term but very likely successful defense strategy against terror would be a worldwide initiative to empower and train parents, so that they are equipped with the necessary skills of dialogue and confrontation to protect their sons and daughters from the traps of extremist ideologies and organizations. Such a campaign would revitalize civil society, especially in crisis areas such as Yemen.
A few weeks ago, we discussed Yemen’s de-radicalization program with Dr. Mahmoud Al-Hitar, Yemen’s Minister for Religious Endowment and Guidance, which he developed. This program is based on the power of religious messages. The Saudis have since expanded his model. On the outskirts of Riyadh lies the reception tent of the Rehab Center for terrorists receptive to reform. Apart from religion, psychotherapy is front and center: the residents paint, discuss, and pray for many months. While I watch a video about bringing back the ex-Guantanamo detainees, I can hear them playing soccer just outside the tent.
The families are a cornerstone of the reintegration efforts. They are also supported financially, with one condition: they must actively monitor their family members to make sure that they do not drift back into their old, radical circles. In response to a critical question about whether it is easy for the extremists to fake rehabilitation and return to free Saudi society, the leadership pragmatically remarks, “ Either we bring them back, or Al Qaeda will.”
The attempted terrorist attack on the flight to Detroit once again made it clear to us: a long-term and, more importantly, credible de-radicalization of society is necessary. Much is on the line: our security and stability.
This article was published in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse on January 2, 2010 and in The Yemen Times on January 25, 2010. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org