The Christmas Day bombing attempt by Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab quickly became a another tiresome political issue in the United States, yet another opportunity for the Republicans to bash the President. Why, they ask, is he being charged in a court of law, instead of being locked up in a secret prison and treated like an "enemy combatant"? This incident, they claim, is part and parcel of the Obama administration’s flawed approach to the "war on terrorism": we’re treating the terrorists like ordinary criminals, they complain, instead of mad dogs who deserve water-boarding and worse.
As usual, the GOP leadership is adding nothing to the discussion with its partisan brickbats, and perverted focus on the benefits of torture, and this incident in particular only underscores their sorry irrelevance. Because the real question, one that was instantly asked by all sorts of non-Republicans in the wake of the incident, is: How did he ever get on a plane in the first place, when his own father went to the authorities over concerns that his son had been "radicalized" – and had subsequently disappeared?
Of course, Republicans asked [.pdf] this question, too, but then went on to reiterate their pro-torture "enemy combatant" stance, reinforced with calls to extend the "war on terrorism" to Yemen, from whence Mr. Abdulmutallab was supposedly dispatched by al-Qaeda. This whole mantra, however, is a meaningless non sequitur when it comes to the pertinent question, which is: how, after all the post-9/11 peregrinations and preventative programs, all the billions spent and the alleged reorganization of our intelligence-gathering capabilities implemented, did we fail to "connect the dots," as the cliché goes?
Yes, we "failed to connect the dots," say our government officials – just like on 9/11. Oh, but don’t worry, because now we’re on the ball, we’re taking new and even more intrusive steps to guard against in-flight terrorism – spanking-new strip-scanners in every airport, and lots of even more obnoxious TSA agents.
If those geniuses in Washington failed to connect the dots, then one of the passengers on Northwest Flight 253 is drawing our attention to a dot that isn’t mentioned in most news reports, one that gives us a whole new perspective on the Christmas Day would-be bomber and how he managed to evade routine screening procedures.
The discovery of the missing dot is provided courtesy of Kurt Haskell, a Michigan lawyer, who was on that flight. He and his wife were sitting in front of the attendant’s desk playing cards at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport when Haskell took note of an odd couple walking up to the desk. Odd because they seemed mismatched: a lanky ill-dressed black male who looked no more than 16 years old, and a well-dressed somewhat portly older man who looked Indian and spoke English with an American accent. Haskell strained to hear: what the well-dressed man was saying to the attendant was that he needed to get his companion – who had no passport – on the flight.
The attendant insisted that every passenger must have a passport, but the well-dressed man, undeterred, explained "He’s a refugee from Sudan," and furthermore averring "We do this all the time."
The attendant, properly impressed with this authoritative display, shrugged and said: Well, you’ll have to speak to my superior. The well-dressed man and his charge disappeared down a hallway – and the next time Haskell saw the skinny kid, he was trying to blow up the plane.
I reported on this story when it first came out in the Detroit News: it soon spread to the national media, where it was given a certain amount of credence, and US officials and the Dutch – who had deflected Haskell’s own efforts to get at the truth – could no longer ignore it. Both the FBI and the Dutch authorities denied there was any truth to the story: the Dutch claimed airport video showed no evidence of the well-dressed man accompanying Abdulmutallab, and US officials completely discounted Haskell’s eyewitness testimony. Haskell claims a major media outlet that had planned to cover the story told him they were canceling the interview because his account had been proved to be an "urban myth."
Haskell’s fifteen minutes were up, and his name faded from news accounts. But his startling account of what happened at Schiphol airport was unobtrusively confirmed the other day by ABC News in a tangentially-related story entitled "Alert: Female Suicide Bombers May Be Heading Here From Yemen," with the alluring subhead: "U.S. Agents Told Women Believed Connected to Al Qaeda May Have Western Appearance and Passports." At the very tail end of this gripping narrative of Islamist Mata-Haris in disguise, we get the following tidbit:
"As part of the additional scrutiny, federal agents are conducting extensive background checks on every passenger who flew to Detroit on the Northwest flight in case one of them might have been sent as a “spotter” on the mission.
"Federal agents also tell ABCNews.com they are attempting to identify a man who passengers said helped Abdulmutallab change planes for Detroit when he landed in Amsterdam from Lagos, Nigeria.
"Authorities had initially discounted the passenger accounts, but the agents say there is a growing belief the man have played a role to make sure Abdulmutallab ‘did not get cold feet.’"
This rather offhand admission that Haskell’s account was truthful – without naming him – is stunning in several respects: Haskell, for one, is justifiably angry that, after trying to discredit him as somehow delusional, or even a liar, they finally acknowledge the truth without issuing an accompanying apology. He even has a theory as to why this is so: he cites US government officials testifying before congress as saying they would allow someone on the terrorist watch list into the US on certain occasions and given certain circumstances, in order to keep tabs on them and uncover their contacts in this country.
The well-dressed man, according to Haskell, must have been an American, and not only that, but a US government official, whose ironic task it was to shepherd the young terrorist aboard the plane– the idea being that this would somehow facilitate our intelligence-gathering capabilities. The US government, he concludes, is covering up an instance when its harebrained James Bond-ish antics nearly caused the death of hundreds.
This theory is based on several questionable assumptions, primary among them the idea that the well-dressed man is an American, never mind a US government employee. How does he know that? One could very well have an American accent without having been born in this country.
In addition, Haskell’s theory is far too complex and definitive, given what we know for sure. Details about the pre-boarding interview with Abdulmutallab – every passenger has to undergo a personal interview before getting on a plane at Schiphol – have not been released, and that airport video they claim shows no sign of the well-dressed man is still being withheld.
What we do know is this: Abdulmutallab had help getting on that plane. From whom, we don’t yet know. We also know he had at least one accomplice onboard: not the well-dressed Indian-looking man, but another Indian-looking man whose baggage was singled out by bomb-sniffing dogs in Detroit and was led away in handcuffs. This part of Haskell’s account was also initially denied by the authorities, who came up with four or five different explanations before some of the other passengers, including one appearing on MSNBC, stepped forward and corroborated his story. We still don’t know the fate or identity of the other Indian, and US officials have simply stopped addressing the matter.
Who was that well-dressed man? One would hardly expect the facilitator of al-Qaeda’s latest attempt to strike at the United States to be an Indian-looking guy wearing an expensive suit and brandishing an American accent. An actor playing a part? But what role, and what’s the narrative, the story-line?
We are all of us potential novelists when it comes to extrapolating the known facts, and the line between rational inquiry and fiction-writing is all too often blurred by our prejudices and other emotions – in Haskell’s case, having been through a hair-raising experience, only to find that his own government seems less than interested in preventing a reoccurrence, and is, instead, more concerned with calling his own credibility into question.
Without venturing too far out into the speculative realm, and taking only what we know for sure as our guide, Haskell’s account and its apparent verification by US government sources raises an interesting question, one that has lurked in the background ever since September 11, 2001 – did al-Qaeda act alone?
The official story [.pdf] of the 9/11 attacks – that nineteen Arab men, armed only with box-cutters and their own fanaticism, succeeded in taking control of four airliners, and crashing two of them into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon, and that they did this with no outside help, all by their lonesome selves – was never very convincing. Numerous accounts of unusual activities on the ground in the US in the months prior to 9/11 long ago convinced me that at least one foreign intelligence agency had some indication of what was in the works, and not only did nothing to stop Mohammed Atta and his confreres, but also effectively shielded them from our own efforts at surveillance.
In short, al-Qaeda had allies in a position to assist in the success of the hijacking plot – and so did the Christmas Day bomber.
One needn’t accept any of this – that al-Qaeda has useful allies, not all of whom are Islamic fanatics – to find Haskell’s account, and the US government’s backhanded acknowledgment of its veracity, more than a bit disturbing. What I want to know is: why is the "mainstream" news media silent on this story? It’s a lot more interesting and relevant than ninety-nine percent of the crap they cover: did that "Dateline" reporter who told Haskell he was purveying an "urban myth," get the word from her government sources to put the kibosh on the story?
The principle of secrecy – which is the only principle, aside from constant lying, that US government officials seem to honor these days – forbids any public discussion of the real issues underlying our eternal "war on terrorism." Even though this struggle defines our foreign policy and rationalizes the most injurious assaults on our civil liberties since the Civil War, we aren’t allowed to know much about many of the particulars.
Thus US officials and their media amen corner can get away with portraying what they call the Long War as a simple black-and-white struggle of bad guys versus good, al-Qaeda versus the West, in which the former utilizes all the tricks of asymmetric warfare while we rely on the military resources of a great power to pursue the enemy in his lair. Every once in a while, however, facts emerge that don’t fit the official narrative, and the Christmas Day bombing attempt was one such occasion, providing additional evidence of a more complex reality waiting to be unearthed.
Could it be that the war on terrorism is a multi-sided conflict, a deadly game involving at least one or possibly several more players than previously thought? The revelation that Abdulmutallab had enablers, one for sure and possibly two at the scene of the crime, certainly points in that direction.