Christmas day, Farouk and Yemen

Jason Ralph

There are several points to come out of the events of the last few weeks that are pertinent to this project.  I am of course referring to the treatment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23 year old Nigerian who tried to blow up the plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit.  The first thing to say is that Farouk was taken into criminal custody and not classified as an enemy combatant.  This is not unexpected of course.  It is consistent with the preference for a law enforcement approach to counter-terrorism, and in fact even the Bush administration in the immediate post 9/11 period preferred this approach in a similar case, that of Richard Reid the so-called shoe bomber, who was convicted by a US federal court.

The second thing to note is that the choice of the law enforcement route seems to have worked in providing intelligence on future al Qaeda threats, at least according to the administration.  Obama’s counter-terrorist assistant John Brennan for instance defended plea bargains, usual in the criminal justice process, as an intelligence gathering strategy.  “Brennan told CNN’s “State of the Union” that other terrorism suspects have “given us very valuable information as they’ve gone through the plea-agreement process.”’  This narrative has not gone unopposed in public discourse, and again the conservative counter-narrative emerges in predictable quarters.  In contrast to The Washington Post editorial, the Wall Street Journal for instance reminded its readers that there are costs to the law enforcement approach by noting that Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, did not lead the US to the capture of KSM.  Before that could happen we had to have 9-11 and a change in counter-terrorist and interrogation tactics.

“All of this is directly relevant to the Administration’s rash decision to indict Abdulmutallab on criminal charges immediately after his arrest in Detroit on Christmas weekend. The Nigerian jihadist could have been labeled an enemy combatant, detained indefinitely, and interrogated with a goal of discovering who he had met in Yemen, whether other plots are underway, and much else that might be relevant to preventing the next terror attempt. This is a far higher priority than convicting Abdulmutallab and sending him to jail.”

Likewise, Joe Lieberman, who continues on his journey to the right, is quoted as saying it was a “very serious mistake” to send Abdulmutallab to federal court.

“He was trained, equipped and directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Lieberman said on ABC. “That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war, held in a military brig, questioned now, and should have been ever since apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get people in Yemen.”

The third and final (for now) thing to say is that the episode makes it much more difficult for Obama to close Guantanamo, paticularly because of the Yemeni connection.  This was made obvious by a recent court decision rejecting the appeal for release of Ghaleb Nassar Al-Bihani.  This Washington Post piece spells out the political problem which is running alongside the continuing judicial one.

Several of the roughly 91 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been cleared to be sent home. However, that appears unlikely any time soon because of concerns that deepened when a Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a U.S. airliner told U.S. investigators he was trained by al Qaeda in Yemen.


About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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