Using human development as antidote to Islamic terrorism


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Alleged Christmas Day bomber when he was in Yemen. Photo: Al Jazeera

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and is a contributing Worldfocus blogger.

Umar Abdulmutallab’s audacious attempt on Christmas Day — to ignite explosives that he had smuggled on board a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit from Holland — has been a top story for the past few days.

Quick thinking by passengers who pinned him down averted what could have been a major tragedy.

Abdulmutallab is quoted as saying that he obtained the deadly explosives from al-Qaeda agents operating in Yemen. He reportedly spent some time in Yemen recently and presumably got indoctrinated there to attack Americans in the sky.

Parallels with Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber” who tried something similar 8 years ago, come immediately to mind.

A somber President Obama said that the obvious security lapse, which allowed a passenger to smuggle explosives sewn in his underwear, was “unacceptable.”

More interestingly, Abdulmutallab’s father, a retired banker, had gone to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria late last year to warn it that his son had been radicalized. Further, that he was a potential menace to the United States. It is not known why the father’s courageous denunciation of his son did not have the desired effect of putting him on the no-fly list.

Five American youth are in custody in Pakistan because their parents had notified the FBI that they were missing and might be in contact with al-Qaeda. This example shows that the Muslim community worldwide is becoming more proactive in revealing contemplated acts of violent extremism emanating from their kith and kin.

Obama is right to order a thorough probe of the Christmas day bombing incident. Better sharing of intelligence among the American security agencies is key to thwarting such attempts to harm Americans. The Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and others must cooperate in getting to the bottom of this security failure.

There are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity. A minuscule proportion of Muslim young men, for a variety reasons, become radicalized. Extremist organizations recruit them after pointing to alleged U.S. culpability in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Such alienation leading to radical behavior is not peculiar to Islam. It exists in other major religions as well. Blaming Islam for the acts of a few individuals exhibits both ignorance and bias.

Obama should also be very cautious about getting embroiled in Yemen, a desperately poor country with a weak government facing more than one violent insurgency. He already has his hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. By all means, Yemen’s counter-terrorism apparatus needs U.S. advice and financial support. But an even more critical need is to use soft power for human development.

If the energies of hundreds of thousands of young Yemenis could be channeled into gainful employment, they are much less likely to be recruited by extremist organizations. Al-Qaeda and their ilk find a ready clientele in poverty-ridden and fragmented states such as Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan — and in the lawless tribal areas abutting the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Poverty was not the motivating factor with Abdulmutallab. He came from an affluent background and was educated in Britain. This goes to show that violent extremism has many faces. It is not possible to build a single profile of what motivates radicalization.

It is virtually impossible to eradicate violent extremism root and branch in our far from perfect world. But the international community — working together and taking affirmative action in impoverished areas of the globe — can certainly reduce such incidents.

Human development is the single most effective antidote to such behavior.

– S. Azmat Hassan

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